Synthetic Biology – UPSC GS3

Utility: Direct question can be asked on this topic due to COVID.
Synthetic biology:
  • Synthetic biology refers to the science of using genetic sequencing, editing, and modification to create unnatural organisms or organic molecules that can function in living systems.
  • Synthetic biology enables scientists to design and synthesise new sequences of DNA from scratch.

  • In 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense categorised synthetic biology as one of the six disruptive basic research areas.
Applications of Synthetic Biology:
  • Standardised Biological Parts: Identify and categorise standardised genomic parts that can be used to build new biological systems.
  • Applied Protein Design: Redesign existing biological parts and expand the set of natural protein functions for new processes. For e.g., Modified rice to produce beta-carotene (a nutrient usually associated with carrots), that prevents Vitamin A deficiency.
  • Natural Product Synthesis: Engineer microbes to produce all of the necessary enzymes and biological functions to perform complex multistep production of natural products. For e.g., Microorganisms harnessed for bioremediation to clean pollutants from water, soil and air.
  • Synthetic Genomics: Design and construct a ‘simple’ genome for a natural bacterium. For e.g., Yeast engineered to produce rose oil as an eco-friendly and sustainable substitute for real roses that perfumers use to make luxury scents.
  • Application in medicine:
    • Novel drugs and antibiotics, vaccines
    • Targeted delivery systems to treat certain cancerous tumors
    • Role in genetic and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinsonism etc.
  • Application in Food security:
    • Pesticide resistant varieties (BT cotton)
    • High yielding varieties
    • Protein or mineral enriched cereals
    • Delay in rotting with better quality and color.
Issues with Synthetic Biology:
  • Toxicity and allergens: allergenic properties of donor can be transferred to recipient.
  • Affecting genetic diversity and ecological balance: being exotic species can wipe out native species, leading loss to significant genetic pool and new risks of novel viruses and bacteria due to horizontal gene transfer.
  • New Diseases: These transgenic genes can jump over to cause new diseases or unknown cancerous conditions.
  • Bioterrorism: Most important of all Bioterrorism/ biological weapons, as earlier done by using anthrax and botulism toxin. Ex. Alleged origin of Corona Virus.
  • Accidental Leaks: of pathogens due to factors such as insufficiently trained staff, inadequately safeguarded facilities, and lack of proper protocols followed during experiments.
  • Poor Regulation: Bio-weapons are recognised as the ‘weapon of mass destruction’ (WMD) but still regulation is poor.
Regulatory aspects relevant to Synthetic Biology:
  • International Bodies & Agreements:
    • Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)
    • Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
    • Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing
    • Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol
    • Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO)
    • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
    • International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
    • Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)
    • UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
    • Biological Weapons Convention.
    • India is a party to all the International governance bodies discussed above.
  • Indian Regulatory System:
    • Drugs and Cosmetics Rules – 1988,
    • Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001,
    • Biological Diversity Act, 2002
    • Food Safety and Standards Act 2006
Why Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention is not effective in dealing with the misuse of synthetic biology?
  • Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) of 1972 has no implementing body and does not have a verification clause.
  • It has not clearly laid down rules and procedures to guide research.
  • Dilemma in Article 1 of the BTWC: Bio-weapons are banned, but research for medical and bio-defence purposes is allowed for peaceful purposes. There is a thin line between bio-defence research and bio-weapons research.
Why India is more vulnerable to bio-weapon attack?
  • Lack of preparation and poor infrastructure: India is not having a strong disease surveillance system.
  • Multiplicity of Bodies: There is a multiplicity of bodies and the absence of an empowered coordinating body, which makes coordination difficult.
    • For instance, the implementation of biosafety guidelines is the responsibility of the Science and Technology Ministry and the Environment Ministry.
    • However, labs dealing with biological research are set up under the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, which are under the Ministries of Health and Agriculture, respectively.
  • Ineffective separation of areas: Traditional ministry-wise separation is not useful in the case of zoonotic diseases as it requires “one health approach”.
  • Porous Borders: India has porous borders with ill-trained border control institutions, and they are not prepared for defending against pathogens.
Related Questions:
Write a note on the meaning and applications of Synthetic Biology. Also examine the ethical issues involved in its application. (200 Words)

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