Engineering new synthetic organisms offers promise of fighting disease and even global warming, but also comes with risk. Now two-thirds of Americans surveyed in a new poll say the field should move forward, while one-third supports a ban until researchers better understand the possible consequences.
The field, called synthetic biology, worries some due to its possible impacts related to biological weapons and potentially harmful health effects on humans.
President Obama has ordered a presidential commission to figure out what role government should play in both encouraging and regulating synthetic biology research. Just over half of the 1,000 poll participants said the U.S. government should regulate, while only 36 percent believed in relying on voluntary guidelines developed jointly by industry and government.
That majority belief in government regulation matches views about nanotechnology that emerged in earlier polls by Hart Research Associates and the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
"The message then and now is that there's not a lot of public trust in the industry to self-regulate," said David Rejeski, director of the science and technology innovation program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Synthetic biology gained recent attention when researchers led by J. Craig Venter announced they had transplanted a synthetic genome into a living cell in May.
Harnessing biological tools
Venter's group has also begun working with the National Institutes of Health to make synthetic components of every flu vaccine ever sequenced. That would allow researchers to whip up seed candidates for flu vaccines within 24 hours – an application supported by six out of 10 poll participants.
"The vaccine issue is one that was publicly mentioned and obviously would have significant implications if you rolled it out, because it would touch millions of people," Rejeski told LiveScience.
But using synthetic biology to speed up growth of livestock for more food production drew a much more negative response. Three out of four of people surveyed had concerns about such an application.
That finding again agrees with earlier poll results about nanotechnology, which involves manipulating nonorganic materials on a very tiny scale. People had no problem with antimicrobial nanotech linings for food containers, but seemed far more worried about nanotech particles inside actual food.
"The closer the technology gets to your mouth, the more people get concerned about it," Rejeski explained.
The Food and Drug Administration has already begun considering approval of genetically modified Atlantic salmon that grows more quickly and reaches a larger size than its ordinary cousins. Such salmon came from traditional genetic engineering, which manipulates genes that already exist, but synthetic biology could aim for similar achievements by using human-made genetic sequences.
Letting go of all your worries
People who cited moral issues about creating artificial life tended to reject both the flu vaccine and livestock applications. Convincing that group otherwise could prove difficult, given that the poll also showed a strong tie between greater religious belief and concerns about synthetic biology.
"You are going to have people who are just going to reject the science based on moral concerns, and I don't think you're going to move them," Rejeski said.
Still, moral issues represented just one of three top concerns listed by poll participants.
Top concerns split almost equally between possible use of synthetic biology to create biological weapons (27 percent), moral issues with creating artificial life (25 percent), and negative health effects for humans (23 percent). A smaller group of 13 percent listed damage to the environment as their biggest concern.
Several notable groups emerged that supported the idea of banning further research, at least until more research uncovers the possible risks. Those include 52 percent of African-Americans, 43 percent of Hispanics, 43 percent of evangelicals, and 40 percent of women polled. (Of course there may be overlap between categories.)
Views on how to regulate synthetic biology research split unsurprisingly along political lines. Democrats favored government regulation over voluntary guidelines by 64 percent to 28 percent, while independents did the same by 49 percent versus 37 percent. Republicans seemed divided with 42 percent favoring government regulation and 44 percent supporting voluntary guidelines.
Any future decisions about how to regulate such research will in part depend on public knowledge and attitudes. People who had greater awareness of synthetic biology tended to report more positive attitudes toward future research.
But that does not mean experts can expect to simply educate the public and raise acceptance of synthetic biology. Poll participants also moved toward the idea that synthetic biology presented more risk than benefit after they read balanced information about the pros and cons of the science.
From Aug. 16-22, Hart Research Associates conducted anationwide survey among 1,000 adults about awareness of and attitudes toward syntheticbiology and two potential applications of the science.