Design automation systems tailored to the task of genetic engineering could prove to be double-edged tools. While they represent a central thrust of the emerging synthetic biology movement, they also can lead to the accidental or deliberate creation of pathogenic biological components.

One expert in the field, Harvard University genetics professor George Church, compared the potential misuse of synthetic biological designs with the danger posed by nuclear weapons. But there is one important difference, in his view — it is much harder to build a fusion device than to genetically engineer a pathogen. And the complexity of biological processes also increases the danger of accidents.

By reducing the molecular biology of the cell to a list of standard modules with predictable behavior, professional biodesigners could engineer molecular machines in much the same way that system-on-chip designers create silicon systems. Just as a circuit designer does not need to be an expert in silicon physics and manufacturing processes, the future biodesigner will not need a detailed knowledge of biochemistry to effectively create complex biochemical machines.

“Even if we don’t have bioterrorists and teen-age biohackers, we will still create things that do not have the properties that we thought they would,” Church said.

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