The ethics issue: Should we let synthetic life forms loose?

Ben Edwards/Getty By Michael Le Page Biologist George Church is making forms of life that could never arise naturally. He and his team are changing the genetic code of E. coli bacteria used in drug manufacture so as to make them immune to all viruses: a giant step forward for the industry. But the very immunity that serves us so well in a vat in the lab could come back to bite us if those bacteria wound up in our bodies. Church’s team at Harvard University is just one of hundreds around the world creating “synthetic life”, some kinds meant for labs and factories, others for farms. Can we really control these creations? Can we ensure they remain where we want them? Or do the potential risks to us and to wildlife mean it would be better not to meddle with synthetic life at all? “Biocontainment is our number one priority,” Church told New Scientist last year when he unveiled his latest creation. To ensure his recoded organisms cannot go feral, he has altered them so they are dependent on chemicals that don’t occur naturally. Others want to go much further,
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