Is Xenobiology a good idea?

Or is it risky business?
27 February 2018

Interview with 

Victor Delorenzo, Madrid's National Centre of Biotechnology




All risks considered, is xenobiology a good idea? According to Victor Delorenzo from the National Centre of Biotechnology in Madrid, the biggest risk is to not do anything at all! As Georgia Mills found out... 

Victor - I think that we’re facing a number of major environmental global problems and there is a hope that, perhaps, synthetic biology and these heavily engineered organisms can help to tackle these problems. I argue that we should not be distracted on analysing or predicting actual risks, or entering into governance before having data simply because we do not have enough time to be distracted with these aspects and the priority, in my opinion, is to see whether we can really produce agents that can help us to solve the problems.

Georgia - Should we gather as much data as possible first, then access the risk later? But what makes Victor so confident we shouldn’t worry about something escaping?

Victor - You cannot say it will not happen 100% security, safety or predictability. But, what we can say is that after nearly 40 years of many laboratories working on genetic engineering, there’s not one single case reported in the literature in which release, either accidental or deliberate, of these types of recombinant organisms have created any detectable problem. That doesn’t mean of course, it may not happen in the future but, for the time being, I would be on the safe side and advocate that we should not be over concerned because the data so far is very ambiguous and gives us reasons to be optimistic.

Georgia - What about intentional harm like bioterrorism?

Victor - If you want to be a bioterrorist, you have plenty of natural microbes, and natural pathogens that are far worse in the imagination of any available synthetic biology can entertain. That’s one thing, and the other thing is that we still don’t know enough how pathogenesis works and it will be very difficult and very intricate thinking of improving the natural mechanisms of bitterness that are out there. Finally, I think that the only laboratories that could do something connected to that are in super super advanced countries and I don’t think that they are not in the position to develop these types of approaches.

Georgia - While contamination is a risk, Victor thinks this has actually happened a few times before and, in general, the natural world hasn’t blinked an eye. In terms of bioterrorism we’re not close to being able to engineer something that could be this affective and the natural world has currently come up with a lot of deadly options already. Whether this has you convinced or not, these kinds of questions of risk and responsibility aren’t unique to xenobiology...

Victor - Every time there is a really disruptive technology you have a list of questions that historically have been raised when they have been exposed to the wider public. So is this technology safe? Also there’s the question of who owns the intellectual property and it’s interesting because in the time of the invention of anaesthetics there were some discussions between French groups and American groups of who should really hold the patent of these anesthetics. But also there are these moral aspects: are we doing something wrong, are we doing something against nature, are we playing God, that sort of thing? These discussion were very intense in the 19th century but now everyone considers that anaesthetics is fantastic and it is, in fact, one of the biggest advances in medicine.

My hope and my expectation is that these discussions we have today will develop into a general acceptance that xenobiology is great and is a brand new technology that will allow us to solve problems that we could not solve before.

Georgia - It’s still early days in the field yet and it remains to be seen how people will respond to the technology, and even if will be able to delivery on its promises? Will it be another anesthetic greeted first with suspicion but then with acceptance, even dependence? Will it be seen as a way to save the planet from catastrophe, or will it be seen as a dangerous experiment which could do more harm than good? Well, I’ll give Victor the last word…

Victor - The world is divided between pessimists and optimists, and I belong to the optimist community. I believe that science and technology and, in particular, synthetic biology and all these new approaches to biological assistance will be our best allies to make sure that we hand over our planet to the next generations in good shape.


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