Our Generation Needs a Mature Conversation About Synthetic Biology

17/06/2016 15:01 | Updated 17 June 2016

Our generation will not be the first to have a difficult conversation about emerging scientific technologies; just ask your parents about test-tube babies. But in my opinion, there has been no conversation as difficult as the one surrounding Synthetic Biology.

Despite being a student of science, I am firmly of the belief that every one of us needs to be involved.

We have arrived at one of the many cross-roads of human existence. We have technology within our grasp that has the potential to break the barriers of what we see as 'natural', and there needs to be a broad debate on to what extent we would like to protect this.

The problem with having this debate however, is making sure that everybody is educated and empowered enough to look inside themselves and work out where they stand. Even defining what Synthetic Biology actually is difficult enough.

But rather than patronising you by struggling to explain Synthetic Biology to you in layman's terms, instead I'd like to make the values-based case for the responsible and regulated development of Synthetic Biology.

Playing God is not new
This is a common concern for non-scientists when they hear about the work of Synthetic Biologists, but the 'playing God' argument is more of a cherry-picking exercise than a scientific criticism. The last few centuries of agricultural techniques have been centred around genetic engineering, the only difference being they didn't take place in a lab. This seems to me like an arbitrary place to draw the line.

Should we really value 'naturalness'?
Defining what is natural and what isn't is becoming increasingly difficult. But if you want to know what 'naturalness' is like in its purest form, then you only have to look back into the depths of history to realise it's full of child mortality, disease and misery. If surrendering to the 'artificial' means we can provide life-saving care for those who need it, then count me in.

This is about responsibilities
History will judge our generation on how we decide to use these technologies. Of course we may be criticised for poor regulation, but sheer inaction is surely just as unforgivable? It's easy to be cynical about technological advancements from the relative comfort of the developed world, but we must think very carefully about the benefits for people less fortunate than ourselves.

I'm not asking people to blindly accept the science, but I want scientists and non-scientists to work together to create a counter-narrative to all of the unscientific scaremongering and sensationalism that can be found in mainstream media. There's still a long way to go, and that makes this the perfect time to start having these debates.

Personally, each academic I meet fills me with nothing but optimism. These people are not part of a dystopian conspiracy, they are amazing, intelligent people who want the best for their children, and for yours.

Now is not the time for uneducated, rash decision making. We are standing on the edge of the scientific revolution, let's not just turn around and walk the other way because we're confronted by darkness.

Let's shine our torches into the future, and be brave enough to take those uncertain steps towards a better world.