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Life Sciences, Wiley-Blackwell

How Should Science Regulate ‘Playing God’?


From genetically modified crops to cloning, the debates surrounding genetically created organisms are poised between moral uncertainly and potential scientific benefit. As the recent success of Craig Venter’s team at creating an artificial genome-transplanted bacterium looks set to intensify the debate, distinguished Professor Sang Yup Lee, from the renowned KAIST institute in South Korea, writes in Biotechnology Journal to call for ‘ethical regulation.’

In considering Venter’s achievement Professor Lee said: “So far there is no negative impact, and I believe that there will not be in most, if not all, cases. However by extrapolating this success in the future, one can create any organism (for now, any single-cell organism) in vitro. To the public it may seem that scientists are playing God, which is ethically controversial.”

The debate, Professor Lee says, is a public discussion about safety versus benefits. While such technology has the potential to create bountiful GM crops resistant to drought and insects, it could also be used to create deadly pathogens which would prove to be devastating weapons of war.

“Should we ban the entire technology?” asks Lee. “This is probably not possible or wished for. An analogy would be nuclear power versus the atomic bomb.”

The key to successfully controlling this technology, Lee argues, is the control of DNA synthesis which is vital to artificial organism technology. While it should remain an open discussion Lee argues that a license requirement for DNA synthesis or examination requirements for sequences of DNA to be synthesized may provide the regulation framework to prevent ‘playing God.’

“We, humans, have been smart and ethical enough to wisely employ scientific advances to improve the state of the world and human welfare,” concluded Lee. “All of us should pay attention to the new challenges generated by synthetic biology, to the benefit of humankind.”