In recent years, the word “biological engineering” and the scientific advancement it has made often appear on news. People have also seen the disastrous future as a result of malicious use of bioengineering in some science fiction films. In fact, the future greatly affected by synthetic biology is just around the corner. Synthetic biology is a broader definition of biological engineering, and it is an interdisciplinary study of biology and engineering, focusing on the design of biological components using engineering principles. It will offer great benefits for human beings in the future, but only if we are well-prepared for its possible dangers.
To start with, synthetic biology has shown positive effects in recent years, and we can predict its huge benefits in the future. In “Consequentialism and the Synthetic Biology Problem”, Patrick Heavey discusses the potential of synthetic biology in multiple fields, including “solving many of the world’s food supply problems”, developing new drugs and gene therapy to revolutionize medicine, and creating biofuels to solve the energy crisis. In a word, the advance in synthetic biology offers us a sustainable future with higher living conditions. Besides these technological effects, synthetic biology is predicted to enhance people’s ethical understanding and facilitate the economy as well.
Tuija Takala states in “Finding Hope in Synthetic Biology” that “[s]ynthetic biology gives us an opportunity to reassess and reevaluate our conceptions of life and the notions of value attached to it” and “the mere existence of the promises that synthetic biology holds could give a substantial boost to the struggling world economy.” Exploring the world has always been a major interest of human beings, and synthetic biology may take our understanding of nature to a new level. And since the economy is the basis for human society, the economic growth that the commercialization of synthetic biology may bring can be highly helpful. With such benefits, we should definitely put more efforts into the development of synthetic biology.
Nevertheless, there are possible hazards that lie in the future of synthetic biology that we can never ignore. Because of the stochastic nature of biology and the engineering failure that is “an integral part of engineering”, the results of synthetic biology are sometimes unpredictable (Heavey). There is no way for scientists to avoid failure for certain. In extreme cases, this may lead to apocalyptic consequences, such as the creation of monsters. On the other hand, synthetic biology can generate ethical problems. For instance, when synbio technologies develop to a certain level in the future, “[t]hese technologies could lead to the creation of supersoldiers; they could also be a step towards transhumanism” (Heavey). Synthetic biology can develop to be too powerful that people with ill will be able to do great harm to the world with it. In order to enjoy the benefits of synthetic biology, we must get these dangers under control before it develops in a way against our expectation.
Therefore, actions must be taken to ensure a safe future for synthetic biology. Firstly, the emphasis on ethical issues is needed. As Takala puts it, “scientists and other people working on synthetic biology projects will remain cognizant of the complexity of biological systems and respectful towards the power and unpredictability of nature.” It is significant that scientists respect the technology and are fully aware of possible outcomes. Secondly, the study of synthetic biology needs government regulation. Bartlomiej Kolodziejczyk and Alexander Kagansky propose some policies that are good examples in “Consolidated G20 Synthetic Biology Policies and Their Role in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, including to “clarify and assign responsibility for failed or dangerous synthetic biology developments” and to “establish governance, regulation and risk management procedures”. Policies and laws are always the best protection against uncertainty and malignity. Only with adequate preparation in ethics and policy can we secure a bright future for synthetic biology.
When we settle all the possible problems with synthetic biology, we would want to make sure that it has everything it needs to develop to its full potential. In “The Promise and Challenge of Engineering Biology in the United States”, Nancy J. Kelley writes about the future needs of synthetic biology from an industrial perspective. “Synthetic biology in the US is an undervalued asset”, and in order to achieve its potential, “continued strategic, financial, and intellectual investment” are needed (Kelley). Knowing the great advantages of developing synthetic biology, it will definitely be worthwhile to give it more support. Ensuring that there is enough investment is also important in creating an ideal future for synthetic biology.
In conclusion, despite the great benefits that synthetic biology is able to bring us in the future, we still have to pay attention to its possible hazards and prepare to control any uncertainty. Furthermore, this is not only true for synthetic biology, but also for a lot of other emerging technologies. Technology is always a double-edged sword, and we can make the best of it by understanding and limiting its negative effects.