A harsh reality of big business is the bottom line – the desire for corporations to always be in the black and experience profit, no matter the cost. In some instances, this is a fine endeavor, and can even occasionally be beneficial, as corporations discover new ways to fix a problem with ease. However, more often than not, it’s the case that big business simply finds a way to fix their problem, with little to no regards to the consequences of their methods. It’s a means to an end, and the means is sometimes very, very harmful. Such is the case with Synthia.
You probably recall a disastrous oil spill several years ago that took place in the Gulf of Mexico. The culprit was popular petroleum powerhouse BP, or British Petroleum (or, as their publicity team sometimes says, Beyond Petroleum). Millions of barrels of oil poured into the ocean along the Gulf shores, covering more than 60,000 square miles of ocean water. As you’d guess, it was a disaster, and not only for BP.
The entire United States was affected in some way or another, as news stations blew up with coverage. After months and months of clean up, BP paid out quite the sum to the parties with the most to lose – from those who could not work thanks to the spills (such as fishing operations) to those demanding retribution for the environmental loss. It was about $27 billion. The entire ordeal forced BP into a situation where they must find a solution to their problems, and fast. After all, profit is king and losing $27 billion plus the cost of the oil platform explosion does not lead to profits. So, it was time to discover new ways to fix the issue.
Unfortunately, BP did not learn from Exxon’s similar situation in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred. A dispersant was created to help with the clean up, which was quickly criticized and later banned due to its toxicity and claims that the ingredients making up the dispersant caused many disorders, particularly those of the nervous system, blood and lungs.
Flash forward to 2010, when in comes the J. Craig Venter Institute, a company with a long past of genetic engineering projects. The institute had come up with a new kind of solution. Of course, it hadn’t been thoroughly tested, at least not to the extent that most would hope, but all was well, they said. After all, it was a solution, right? Thus, the synthetic microorganism, cutely named Synthia, was released into the wild, with a very shortsighted goal in mind.
While some were speculative of the groundbreaking discovery – the first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell – others praised Venter’s work, with some even claiming his discoveries would be the answer to the world’s most pressing problems, such as disease and famine. Venter himself was especially optimistic in a press statement given the day of the development’s announcement, saying, “We have been consumed by this research, but we have also been equally focused on addressing the societal implications of what we believe will be one of the most powerful technologies and industrial drivers for societal good.” (https://www.jcvi.org/cms/press/press-releases/full-text/article/first-self-replicating-synthetic-bacterial-cell-constructed-by-j-craig-venter-institute-researcher/)
At first, Synthia completed her job well. The little artificial microorganism moved along at a rapid pace in the Gulf, eating up all that spilled oil efficiently. No one could be more pleased. However, like something out of a science fiction (or, more accurately, horror) film, Synthia changed, turning on her makers. The shortsighted goal was reaching its longterm effects, and disastrously, much like the ways in which a foreign species, when introduced into a new environment, is capable of completely destroying an ecosystem. Strange things began happening – thousands of dead fish, thousands of dead birds, BP employees suffering from odd illnesses. Instead of working with nature to create a solution, genetic engineers had taken matters into their own hands, and essentially created a monster.
It turns out, after Synthia’s self-imposed mutation, she’s now not only able to kill an oil spill, but everything else in her path. If Synthia makes her way into an open wound, or if she’s ingested via infected seafood, she takes over vital cells, creating fatal toxins that are unstoppable, leading many who die to be later diagnosed with vibriosis (https://www.cdc.gov/vibrio/index.html). Even when Synthia’s not a killer, she’s causing horrific rashes and open sores, even amputations. She’s not just sticking to the Gulf, though. She’s a traveler – heading to Alaska, the northern parts of North America and she may even have her sights set on Europe. She’s evaporated, entering the air and then the rain.
What’s a country’s leaders to do about such a thing? It’s easy to guess that BP has certainly bowed out of the situation, and the J. Craig Venter Institute defends their choices vehemently. Environmental watchdog organizations (https://www.genengnews.com/insight-and-intelligence/recent-fear-and-loathing-in-synthetic-biology-reminiscent-of-other-biotechnologies/77899577/) are calling for stricter regulations regarding synthetic biology, and some are even going so far as to wander if such developments could lead to a new kind of biological warfare, putting unprecedented new weapons in the hands of not only money-hungry corporations, but the most power-hungry countries in the world. Other than these whistleblowers, however, the situation is largely ignored, brushed aside or blamed on something else entirely.
Today, the J. Craig Venter Institute continues its work with synthetic bacteria unhindered, and as recently as March announced the creation of the first minimal synthetic bacterial design (https://www.jcvi.org/cms/press/press-releases/full-text/article/first-minimal-synthetic-bacterial-cell-designed-and-constructed-by-scientists-at-venter-institute-an/), which was built upon the basis of Synthia. The scary part? The new cell is a completely new species, and one-third of it is made up of genes that are completely unknown in regards to their function.
Venter comes back with another quote, saying: “Our attempt to design and create a new species, while ultimately successful, revealed that 32 percent of the genes essential for life in this cell are of unknown function, and showed that many are highly conserved in numerous species. All the bioinformatics studies over the past 20 years have underestimated the number of essential genes by focusing only on the known world. This is an important observation that we are carrying forward into the study of the human genome.”
From the creation of Synthia, Synthia’s deadly effects and the overall lack of any sort of interference by government powers to stop these effects, it’s obvious that any forward movement with these sorts of nature engineering developments must be taken with caution, or not at all. Otherwise, there’s simply no way to predict the results of these unknown genes and how they will interact with the outside world. Unfortunately, the J. Craig Venter Institute seems only focused on plowing ahead, with no regard for taking responsibility for the results of their scientific achievements.