Biology and beer
Are scientists messing with Mother Nature when they enter the world of synthetic biology? Should we encourage them to do so? Discuss.
That was the gist of the Café Scientifique, held on Sept. 29. The event brought together Vincent Martin, Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics and Engineering and a leader in Concordia’s Cellulosic Biofuels Network, his colleague on another multimillion-dollar Genome Canada project Peter Facchini, Canada Research Chair in Plant Biotechnology at the University of Calgary and Richard Gold, law professor and founding director of the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy at McGill University.
The three men discussed questions such as the scientific and legal implications of cheaply distributing synthetically-derived medical treatments in the southern hemisphere. They engaged a packed crowd of over 60 grad students, colleagues, members of industry and administrators in the back of the Irish Embassy Pub & Grill.
Debating scientific ethics over the din of conversation, dropped cutlery and a barely muffled sound system is no easy task. The conversation was ably animated by Concordia Journalism professor David Secko who encouraged people to articulate their thoughts, their fears and their theories, however incomplete they seemed. “It’s loud but that’s part of the energy,” said Secko, who teaches science journalism.
Martin described his research at its most basic level. “Genes are like building blocks in a lego kit,” he said. “Depending on which ones you choose, and how you assemble them, you can build something different.”
In much of his work, Martin works with microbial genomes in an attempt to understand how we can engineer them to produce novel products. By disassembling and re-assembling metabolic pathways of plants in a lab, he hopes to develop cheaper and more accessible results not dependent on weather, available arable land or crop conditions.
Many of those who participated in the conversation raised concerns about possible unintended side effects if these materials get out of the lab and upset existing ecosystems. As one man said, “my main concerns are ignorance, and arrogance, look at DDT,” referring to a pesticide used to reduce malaria infection and found to be toxic when introduced into the environment.
Facchini replied “any technology has positive and negative effects. An overall ban of DDT, may lead to more deaths from malaria than deaths from reactions to it.”
“The key is do it out in the open about the work we are doing, inviting more voices to address potential problems,” added Martin.
Facchini added that many of the experiments conducted in his, and similar, labs, involve a kind of heightened natural selection. Genes do mutate and self-select in nature, though perhaps not at the same scale, with the same direction nor in the controlled conditions a lab offers. “We have a moral responsibility that the natural processes don’t,” he said.
That becomes especially important given Gold’s contribution to the discussion. He stressed that many of these compounds and processes have very little regulatory oversight. “We’re in largely uncharted territory. It’s important to figure out how to get the research done and the products out safely.”
The event was sponsored the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Genome Canada and PhytoMetaSyn Project.
- Canadian Institutes of Health Research
- Genome Canada
- PhytoMetaSyn Project