Silver bullet or Frankenstein?

Nieuws | de redactie
5 februari 2013 | The potential of synthetic biology seems limitless, ranging from vaccinations to the solution to the world’s energy problem. However, it could also become a threat when not dealt with correctly.

Synthetic biology: the design and construction of biological devices and systems for useful purposes, is a scientific field of growing importance. Therefore the Rathenau institute organized a seminar to show the stunning variety of this field’s possibilities. The Rathenau institute pleads that politicians and civil society should join the discussion on the future of synthetic biology as soon as possible for an optimal development of this promising field.

At the moment the discussion on safety, security and ethics is solely held within the scientific community. That civil society and politicians have not joined the discussion yet is peculiar, since synthetic biology has huge implications for every-day-life.

Synthetic biology is not only able to create vaccinations or medical treatments to for example, malaria. It might also lead to bio-terrorism when people start redesigning diseases like smallpox.

Solution to energy problem?

The full potential of synthetic biology is still unknown. On the long term it might replace the current chemical based industry. The future of energy production might also be in synthetic biology. Huub de Groot, director of BioSolar Cells and professor in biophysical organic chemistry in Leiden works on a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.

“If we take a look at the Earth from a remote sensing satellite, it looks like the only thing we do is producing waste” says de Groot. The way we produce energy can be revolutionized and made completely sustainable by synthetic biology.

Currently humanity needs 16TW of energy, which in twenty years this will have doubled. This vast growth can only be achieved through scientific advancement, because with current technological means it is impossible. Fossil fuel and nuclear energy are not an option. “Only the sun can produce enough energy.”

Get around the production of biomass

Traditional techniques like biofuel are not efficient enough to supply the future world with its needed energy. When using biofuels like maize, less than 1 percent of the total solar energy that comes in on a square meter can be used.

If a country like the Netherlands wants to use plants as their major energy source, the whole country needs to be covered. Using artificial leaves with an efficiency rate close to a 100 percent, is a more serious option. When using artificial leaves, the surface of roads and lakes could be sufficient.

“We want to get around the production of biomass and directly produce energy,” says de Groot, “when we achieve this we’ll get close to the highest efficiency rate possible.”  However, for the moment this remains a distant prospect, for now a discussion should be held to prevent this silver bullet turning into a “Frankenstein”.

The publication of the Rathenau Institute on synthetic biology (in Dutch) can be found here

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