“It has been a transformation for the field, involving young people and opening their eyes to the potential to build life instead of just observing it,” said David Haussler, professor of biomolecular engineering at the University. from California to Santa Cruz. “Drew Endy has been the mentor of a whole new generation.”
Synthetic biology holds great promise, but there is a dark side to it as well. Hacking biology and democratizing the tools to do so brings up the specter of an angry loner or terrorist group creating a do-it-yourself pandemic genetically targeting enemies, among other potential horrors.
Mr. Endy, although a champion of synthetic biology, has been clear about the risks from the start. He was the lead author of a report for the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Agency in 2003 which defined a framework for the development of synthetic biology and the management of its risks. In the report, he assessed the range of dangers and imagined the threat of the wrong actor as “bin Laden’s genetics.”
Today, risk management, Mr Endy said, should start with the assumption that in the not too distant future “anyone, anywhere can create any virus from scratch” .
One line of protection is synthetic biology itself. For example, Dr. Endy points to the possibility of advanced technologies such as modified chromosomes that would give humans an integrated defense system, say, against the world’s 20 major pathogens.
But countermeasures also depend on social cohesion and institutional effectiveness of the kind that have proven difficult during the Covid-19 pandemic – such as resistance to vaccination and the wearing of masks, and the shortcomings of the public health system.
The risks, Mr Endy acknowledges, are worrisome, and they contribute to qualms about the overall synthetic biology effort. It can easily be presented as an annoying, even ungodly, alteration of nature.