05/20/2010 06:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Scientists Bring Back Artificial Life -- and Our Fear of Frankenstein

In Frankenstein, the human life form created by Dr. Victor Frankenstein has no name. But in public talks, Mary Shelley was said to have referred to the creature as "Adam" -- the human created in the Bible by God. The subtitle of the book is "The Modern Prometheus" -- another God who, according to some versions of Greek myth, created Man.

Fiction is nearly fact. A group of scientists has manufactured DNA, put it into a bacterium with a similar genetic code, and nurtured this Adam as the inserted DNA took over and turned the host cell into a self-replicating life form. Igor has thrown the switch. Frankenstein has sat up on the table. "It's alive!" Humans have taken a big step toward creating a new form of life.

The scientists rightly beam about the huge promise of synthetic biology -- algae to soak up oil spills or draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to combat climate change. There so many, many more possibilities, impossible even to imagine. The promise here is immense. But we face danger too, and not from the new organism itself, but from the conflict between scientific progress and our fears. This is going to scare a lot of people, and scare them a lot, with the idea that scientists can create new, synthetic forms of life -- to play God in the lab. I'm not talking about the ethics here or about right and wrong, and what's moral. I'm talking about fear, that might well bring this work, with its risks and its phenomenal potential benefits, to a screeching halt.

Recent history bears this out. There was public apprehension about recombinant DNA research in the 70's. Uncertainty was high, and fear followed close behind. Scientists were alleged to be "toying with life." Legislative restrictions started to limit such work. Experiments were shut down. Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard and MIT, banned it. Progress in the field slowed dramatically. And it was fear, not ethics, driving that response. The technology that let us take a gene from one species and splice it into another didn't just make people morally queasy. It made them scared. And that was tepid compared to what could happen this time. Light the torches! Get out the pitchforks and clubs! Kill the monster!

As was the case with recombinant DNA research in the 70's, the science of creating life is charging ahead with all the energy of human curiosity, the seduction of ego, the lure of riches, and the promise of solutions to many of our most pressing health and environmental problems. And as was the case with recombinant DNA science, while the ethical implications of synthetic life science are being considered, public fears are not. More needs to be done to show respect for these understandable worries.

Again, the recombinant DNA episode instructs. As the pressure mounted back then, researchers gathered with lawyers and doctors at a conference near Asilomar State Beach in California. They came up with a long list of biological safety procedures, self-imposed legal restrictions, and the vital acknowledgment that for scientific knowledge to advance, scientists also have to respect people's fears and accept that their work should be controlled. The participants at Asilomar also recognized the need to help the public understand their work, to demystify their science, to respect and address public apprehension. Many of them engaged much more actively with the press and accepted the responsibility that communicating about their work to the general public was nearly as important as the work itself.

Asilomar was in many ways an act of self-interest. Nonetheless, by recognizing and responding to public apprehension in tangible ways, the participants at Asilomar took a vital step in re-establishing public trust in science, which in turn has allowed for decades of progress in biology that has put us on the brink of being able to create synthetic life. But the lessons of Asilomar seem to have faded, at the same time that trust in science itself has eroded since it's heyday back in the decades post-World War II. The leaders in the field of synthetic biology need to recognize the concerns the public have about their work -- not just the ethical concerns but the safety concerns -- and deal with our apprehensions actively, now, just as we are learning that we have created a form of life in a glass beaker that has never existed on earth before. They need to tell us what they are doing to keep their work safe. They need to tell us what they are doing to try to develop new ways of improving safety. They need to tell us how they, and we as a society, might oversee their work in ways that will allow progress but avoid harm. They need to explain what they're doing, simply and clearly, to reduce uncertainty and the fear that goes with it. They need to demonstrate that they take our worries seriously, and not just give those worries lip service while they chase their Nobel Prizes, patents, and personal fortunes.

The ability to construct DNA to our specifications and insert it into living reproducing cells, to create new forms of life, has almost unimaginable promise; to eliminate hunger, clean the environment, cure disease. Far less of that promise will be realized if the people doing this work fail to recognize and address our worries about what they are doing. Otherwise they may learn how to create their Adam, only to find that, out of fear, we want to chase down what they have done and kill it.