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Glow in the dark animals. You may have heard of them. We're making pigs and rats and cats glow these days, but that's just the realm of normal, everyday, oldschool genetic engineering. But now my friends we are headed into a new frontier, a more complicated frontier. Potentially, a more dangerous frontier. The frontier of synthetic biology.

It's a very new brand of science, and it's a bit controversial. Last week, 111 different advocacy groups called for a moratorium on the release and sale of any organisms made by synthetic biology, as well as any of their byproducts.

The groups also called for an outright ban on any synthetic biology involving the human genome, or the genes of any organisms that live in or on us. Today we'll be talking with one of the leading voices behind the moratorium, but first, some background.

Generally, when we talk about synthetic biology, sometimes called extreme genetic engineering, we're talking about inventing new biological functions and systems. Things not found in nature.

So instead of taking existing genes from one species and putting them into another, which has been done for decades, and it's how we make glowing cats, scientists are now able to write a new genetic code, from scratch, and insert it into an organism, usually bacteria of some sort. Craig Venter, who was, like, the head of the team of people who sequenced the human genome, is credited with being the first to create a cell with a synthetic genome.

In 2010, he and his team synthesized bacterial DNA one million units in length, becoming what he called the first self-replicating species we've ever had on the planet whose parent is a computer.

Since then, different approaches to synthetic biology have quickly emerged. BioBricks, for instance, are DNA sequences that code for certain functions, like turning certain genes on or off. They can be inserted into an animal's genome and used to create and modify other living cells in that animal.

Meanwhile, companies like Goodyear and Michelin have used synthetic biology to create a microorganism that produces isopreme, an organic compound used to make rubber. And Venter's group is working with Exxon Mobile to create a new strain of photosynthetic algae that will produce biofuel. Synbio, as they call it, is already a 1 billion dollar industry, and growing fast.

Recently, a study commissioned by the Obama administration gave the industry the green light to basically regulate itself, and that's what prompted last week's call for a moratorium led by the nonprofit Friends of the Earth.

Eric Hoffman, head of FoE's food and technology policy, told us that technology is outpacing the research that's needed to understand the risks of synbio.

HOFFMAN: Thankfully, the field is still in its infancy. Um, for the most part, and we want to make sure that it's regulated properly from the get-go, so we're not just playing catch-up all the time with our regulations and oversight of technology. We're actually thinking forward and trying to be proactive.

HANK: Now some of the biotech industry are saying that synbio is being over-hyped, it's basically just genetic modification but taken a little bit further. Hoffman disagrees, noting that there were a bunch of different unforeseen problems with regular genetic modification.

So right now, while we're just starting to make animals burp out biofuels, his group says that it's a good time to think about where problems might arise.

HOFFMAN: The biotech industry has been saying, uh, that synthetic biology is nothing new when talking to regulators. But they say that it's something brand new, it's new technology that's going to revolutionize our economy and our world when talking to funders. And, you know, we don't think--we think they can't have it both ways.

So we need to take the time to think about how we want this technology to develop. There might be some applications that are good for society, and society agrees we want, and there might be some, um, applications of synthetic biology that we don't want. I think now is the time to have that conversation.

HANK: My opinion is generally pretty gung-ho on this stuff, but I understand the need for us to temper that enthusiasm. But what do you think? Should we be worried, or should we be excited about synthetic biology? We probably should be both. Frankly, I know that I want a glow in the dark llama.

But let us know what you want in the comments and we'll be sure to keep you posted on this, and other developments. I'll see you next week.