Biosafety on earth and beyond

A review of the biosafety issues arising from synthetic biology

June 10, 2016

In this post I briefly describe a new research project of mine that is related to the wide range of research underway in SynthSys. The project is one example of how a social scientist approaches research on synthetic biology.

I’m based in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies and am a Research Fellow on the Engineering Life project, which is exploring the movement of ideas, practices, policies, and promises from engineering into the life sciences. As my background is in human geography and law, I’m particularly interested in 1) the formation of governance systems for the practices and products of 'synthetic biology,' 2) how synthetic biology is understood in such decision-making forums, and 3) how synthetic biologists interact with and understand current and potential future regulations.  I see these as different ways of exploring the process of co-production, by which arrangements of nature and society (such as scientific knowledge and governing mechanisms) are produced in relation to each other.

I’m starting a project on space synthetic biology and how this self-identifying field is defining itself in relation to different histories and legal and policy regimes for biosafety. Synthetic biologists are increasingly publicly invoking outer space - from astronauts handing out industry awardsto a DNA synthesis company musing how synthetic biology could have helped The Martian’s stranded protagonist, to a TEDx talk on transforming human bodies for space colonization. These frequent invocations connect synthetic biology to a grand narrative of outer space science and exploration, but at the same time they are made casually, with no commitments.

Some synthetic biologists and astrobiologists are proposing a more substantive relationship between synthetic biology and outer space. Academic articles and chapters are claiming a new sub-discipline of 'space synthetic biology,' at the “intersection of aerospace engineering and bioengineering.” They advocate the application of synthetic biology tools and approaches to outer space, mostly focused on engineering micro-organisms to such ends as: biomining regolith for metals, producing biofuelsgrowing enhanced algae as foodreplacing medications that have degraded in cosmic radiation, and terraforming Mars. And it’s not just talk – NASA’s Ames Research Centre has a research group on synthetic biology, and two of the eight successful 2015 NASA Early Career Faculty grant proposals explicitly use synthetic biology for in-situ resource utilization. Spokespersons for space synthetic biology claim that: 1) synthetic biology will drive space exploration by providing tools to help humanity explore further and survive longer off Earth; and 2) this connection with outer space will drive and accelerate the development of synthetic biology as it has with previous technologies.

At the very broadest level, I want to explore these claims and ask of this emerging field: what ways of being in and relating with outer space could result from the use of synthetic biology tools? What kinds of institutions, what sorts of legal structures, and what goals for a presence in outer space are embedded in these current and proposed research projects? And how might being a part of this space – the physical, political, and social spaces created by NASA, ESA, and the 'New Space' corporations such as SpaceX – influence synthetic biology?

I’m exploring these questions through the lens of biosafety. Biosafety is generally understood to encompass efforts to reduce or eliminate the possibility of harms that could result to human health or the environment from biological agents. In the context of terrestrial biotechnology, biosafety is secured through risk assessment and management regimes. Institutional tools for biosafety include laboratory biosafety levels, the safeguards for contained use in factories, and the regulatory conditions for deliberate release of genetically modified organisms.  In outer space, ‘biosafety’ translates into the concept of planetary protection –preventing the contamination of other bodies in the solar system with Earth-based life (forward contamination), and of preventing harm from the uncontrolled introduction to Earth of extraterrestrial matter carried by a spacecraft (back contamination).

One way to understand the histories of biosafety in biotechnology and in outer space science is that they’ve followed similar paths - initially stringent rules that have gradually relaxed and loosened as robust bodies of research have built up more knowledge about the systems and organisms, and what degrees of control and containment are necessary. Existing systems of biotechnology risk assessment and outer space planetary protection policy, however, are currently being unsettled. Synthetic biologists promise new ways of engaging with the world, such as micro-organisms engineered for deliberate release into the environment. Partially in response to these projects, biological approaches to containment are being explored, from genomically recoded organisms to new kinds of kill switches to xenobiology.  This is reopening questions of how to define harm, safety, and control in decision-making forums. The Convention on Biological Diversity, the European Commission, and the US federal government have all embarked upon processes to review their oversight of such products and processes.

With outer space, astrobiologists keep extending the boundaries on the conditions for life, as terrestrial life is found in increasingly extreme environments. New tools for planetary protection are being developed in response, such as Mars Special Regions where life might be supported and which receive extra protection.  At the same time, new actors and new drives for space exploration have led to open questioning of whether planetary protection is worth the cost. For those who see Mars as a potential home for humanity, like SpaceX’s Elon Musk, well, a colonized Mars is necessarily a contaminated Mars.

By using the term 'biosafety' for both terrestrial biotechnology and planetary protection, I’m not saying that the politics around, say, GMOs on earth should or will play out similarly on Mars. Rather, I am interested in how containment is understood by space synthetic biologists. Do their ways of understanding the challenge of biosafety relate more to the history and culture of terrestrial biotechnology, or of space science? Of what concerns and controversies are they aware and responsive? What are the drivers influencing them – do they see themselves as scientists, explorers, or colonizers? Both scientific practices and the regulatory environments of outer space and terrestrial biotechnology are changing, and space synthetic biology provides a window through which to study these dynamics.


By Deborah Scott, Research Fellow, Engineering Life Science, Technology & Innovation Studies, University of Edinburgh


Image: Recurring slope lineae at Hale Crater. Sites of RSL have been designated as “Mars Special Regions,” and thus receive greater measures to protect from forward contamination. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona.