include self-destruct mechanisms to prevent uncontrolled spread in the environment. The issue of self-evolvability was also raised, but consensus was not reached as to whether future synthetic biology products could pose unique risks if they evolved at an unprecedented pace and in unexpected directions.
Because developments in technology during recent decades are now routinely used not only in high tech laboratories but in high school classrooms, the tools that can be used for experiments in synthetic biology are widely available. A doctoral degree in science isn’t necessary to know how to mix and match genes. Some scientists suggest building new organisms with genetic blocks may be easier than brewing your own beer—or could even be done while drinking that brew. So, in addition to academic scientists, high school students and do-it-yourself garage labs have the potential to create synthetic organisms. The team was unable to agree whether these amateur scientists could, or should, be closely monitored and subject to regulation.
The team recommended that funding agencies continue to support the study of ethical issues related to new science by setting aside about 5 percent of all grant money for examining these and many more issues that could arise—from risks to humans and the environment to possible limitations on its applications imposed by public wariness of the field.
Public perception will continue to play a major role in the way people respond to news about progress in synthetic biology. The popular media frequently reminds us—and often exaggerates—the risks associated with manipulating nature. The villain in a recent episode of the popular television show, CSI Miami, is an ear of genetically engineered corn; the plot of Jurassic Park was based on genetic engineering gone awry.
While these kinds of portrayals may not accurately reflect the truth, scientists must communicate with the public to alleviate apprehensions that will inevitably arise. People frequently fear what they don’t understand. Natural compounds may sound more benign than artificial ones even though the most harmful toxins are completely natural. The team recommends allocating resources toward risk assessment and communication to ensure the public has the right facts, and that the benefits of the new science—from its potential in curing diseases to creating new renewable fuel sources to cleaning up environmental messes—are presented along with theoretical or real risks.