In 2015 there were 212 million new cases and 430,000 deaths from malaria. Can we re-engineer the malaria-bearing mosquito so it can’t carry the parasite that causes malaria? A new area of genetics called synthetic biology may demonstrate this possibility. If successful, millions may be spared.
Synthetic biology combines biology and engineering and is concerned with re-designing and re-assembling life forms – and creating new life forms. Current research is on the simplest forms of life, such as bacteria.
The United States Department of Defence is a major funder of synthetic biology research into infectious diseases. Research intended to reduce suffering is to be welcomed. But there are possible military applications in synthetic biology as well – mosquitoes or other insects could be re-engineered to spread lethal toxins in their bite.
How do we weigh the benefits and risks of this research? What are the implications for our faith? These questions were considered at the Redesigning the Tree of Life: Synthetic Biology and the Future of Food conference that took place in Toronto November 2-4, 2017, sponsored by Canadian Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.
Resource people included Drew Endy from Stanford University, one of the leading scientists in synthetic biology who sees great possibilities in this new phase of genetics; Jim Thomas, a research associate with the ETC Group brought a critical perspective. Manoela Pessoa de Miranda from the UN Convention on Biological Diversity spoke about the various treaties and conventions intended to protect biodiversity. Synthetic biology may well bring benefits, but the potential risks suggest proceeding cautiously.