If you've never heard of the exciting field of synthetic biology, you're not alone, but you might want to get wise to the field's controversial promise to create life from scratch.
About two-thirds of U.S. residents are clueless as well, having never heard of the synthetic biology. Only 2 percent in a new telephone survey of 1,003 adults said they have heard a lot about the work, which crosses biology with technology and promises to create forms of life that Nature never thought of.
Synthetic biologists engineer and build or redesign living organisms, such as bacteria, to carry out specific functions. The field is a scientific playground for the genetic code, where previously nonexistent DNA is formulated in test tubes.
By taking genetic engineering to the extreme, synthetic biologists aim to make life in the lab.
The promise is that the novel organisms will fight disease, create alternative fuels or build living computers. Already, researchers have transplanted genetic material from one microbe species into the cellular body of another, described last year as the living "equivalent to converting a Macintosh computer to a PC by inserting a new piece of software."
"We face daunting problems of climate change, energy, health, and water resources," a group of 17 leading scientists in the field stated last year. "Synthetic biology offers solutions to these issues: microorganisms that convert plant matter to fuels or that synthesize new drugs or target and destroy rogue cells in the body."
Now you know.
But why should you care?
For one, the field "is potentially controversial because it raises issues of ownership, misuse, unintended consequences and accidental release," according to a report earlier this year commissioned by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in England. In a nutshell, some fear microscopic lab freaks might escape and wreak havoc.
That in mind, scientists are concerned that the United States is falling behind other countries in many areas of science and technology and that the current administration has been downright hostile toward some fields of science. Obtaining federal funding for cutting-edge research can be challenging when the public doesn't even know what the research is about or what its benefits might be.
And as the new poll showed, we tend to fear what we don't know.
Respondents were asked how they viewed the potential risks and rewards of the new technology. "Those more familiar with synthetic biology are more inclined to have a positive assessment of the tradeoff," the pollsters found.
"Early in the administration of the next president, scientists are expected to take the next major step toward the creation of synthetic forms of life," said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. "Yet the results from the first U.S. telephone poll about synthetic biology show that most adults have heard just a little or nothing at all about it."
The poll was conducted in August by Peter D. Hart Research Associates. The results were announced today.
Nearly half of the poll respondents said they have heard nothing at all about the broader field of nanotechnology. Again, "there is a positive association between awareness of nanotechnology and the belief that the benefits of nanotechnology will outweigh the risks," the analysts found.