The biggest barriers to scientific progress often come from environmentalists, which is ironic, because they often claim to carry the banner of good science.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama’s Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released a report which cautiously approved research focused on creating so-called “synthetic life.” (The “synthetic” bacterium– known as Mycoplasma laboratorium— was actually just a normal bacterium, the natural DNA of which had been replaced by laboratory-made DNA. While impressive, this hardly constitutes creating life from scratch.)
Predictably, environmentalists were outraged. What exactly they were outraged about, however, still remains unclear. Back in May, when this breakthrough was first announced, a member of a Canadian environmental organization called ETC Group, said: “We know that lab-created life-forms can escape and become biological weapons, and that their use threatens existing natural biodiversity.” Statements such as this essentially prove that many environmental groups are ignorant of basic biology and the current state of biotechnology.
First, if a scientist wanted to create a biological weapon, he most certainly does not need to make one from scratch in the laboratory. Mother Nature herself has been conducting a very long evolutionary experiment, and she has produced plague, Ebola, anthrax, smallpox, malaria, swine flu, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and a whole host of other highly fatal infections. Even though evil creatures could be dreamed up in the laboratory, Mother Nature will almost certainly invent something far more creative and destructive.
Second, environmentalists clearly misunderstand the current state of biotechnology. It is standard practice in biological laboratories to insert or delete genes. Your correspondent has himself created dozens of strains of genetically-modified bacteria using these common methods. The technology to alter bacteria (and hence, the ability to modify existing microbes into super-killers in the laboratory) has existed for a couple of decades. The “synthetic” bacterium does not represent any new terrorist threat and is simply the extension of an existing, commonplace technology.
Finally, the accusation that the technology will threaten natural biodiversity is incredibly premature and likely exaggerated. It is true that any genetically-modified organisms should be tested for both human and ecological safety. However, the environmentalists have already concluded that the technology is unsafe, even before the technology has been put to practical use. They have already declared the defendant “guilty,” but the trial has yet to start.
Until environmentalists can prove that they at least paid attention in high school biology class, it will be difficult to take their concerns seriously.
Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience. He holds a Ph.D. in microbiology.