Biobricks and Bangladesh

Episode: 
19

Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, as my husband Jay witnessed during his many trips there. Bangladesh is plagued by scarce natural resources, jam-packed with people, buffeted by monsoon rains, and subject to the Ganges River being low in the dry season, and flooding during the rainy season. On top of that, one quarter of their water is tainted by poisonous arsenic.

An intriguing “arsenic detector” has been built by students from Edinburgh, Scotland. “Let’s build thousands of them and ship them to Bangladesh,” you might say. Not so fast. First, just what kind of “detector” did these students build? It’s not made of filters, litmus strips, or battery-operated probes. This detector is built using BioBricks parts.

BioBricks is a catalogue of bits and pieces of DNA that are used to create new organisms.[1] College and high school students can order these components online, picking them out like so many computer parts.

This area of biotechnology is called “synthetic biology.” Using synthetic biology, “scientists and engineers are creat[ing] biological systems that do not occur naturally.”[2] Synthetic biology is similar to other new technologies like genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and information technology. Many of the ethical issues are the same.

There are two general areas of moral concern: physical and non-physical. Physical harms are things like safety and the potential for abuse by bioterrorists. Non-physical harms involve issues of whether living organisms should be patented, who gets to benefit from these innovations, and the role of mankind with respect to how we treat ourselves, others, and the rest of the natural world. I’d like to emphasize just one of these non-physical harms: whether it’s appropriate to produce a new living organism.

Is stringing together various bits of DNA and inserting them into a living cell to create an original organism just like building a gadget using nuts, screws and shafts of steel? Or is it treating life itself as an artifact, something we create and re-create to suit our own needs and desires? Are there any areas of nature that are off limits to our tinkering?

When high school students enthuse over BioBricks like so many Lego blocks, do they see themselves as creators of new life forms? As Christians, we know that all life is a miraculous. We also know that our nature rebels at closed doors, off-limits fruit trees, and commandments. In our breathless pursuit of novelty, we may be losing our capacity for awe.

So, for our friends in Bangladesh, I regretfully say “not yet,” to this biological arsenic detector. Let’s first have a serious cultural conversation about the deep issues at stake in creating life forms. And, let’s be confident that we are creative enough to find better ways of ensuring safe drinking water and thereby better ways of preventing poisoning, disease and death.


[1] Emma Brown, “New Works of Science Fiction.” Washington Post, Oct. 23, 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/AR2009102204628.html (accessed April 2, 2010).

[2] Erik Parens, Josephine Johnston, and Jacob Moses. The Hastings Center. “Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology: An Overview of the Debates,” Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars: Synthetic Biology Project, June 29, 2009. My discussion of ethical categories relies on this overview.

 

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