Meeting the challenges of synthetic biology

09 Jun 2008 00:00:00.000

Moves towards the creation of 'artificial life' in the laboratory demand a thorough review of existing controls and safeguards, according to a report by a University of Nottingham academic.

Synthetic biology - the deliberate creation of living organisms - is an emerging science with major potential for advances in many fields including clean fuel, new medical treatments, biological computers and new ways to clean up hazardous waste.

But an independent report published today concludes that it must be accompanied by open debate and a thorough review of regulations, to encourage public support and to ensure the potential economic and social benefits of synthetic biology are realised.

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The independent report, commissioned by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), one of the UK's leading science funding councils, calls for a robust governance framework to be put in place before new applications are realised. This will require a thorough review of existing controls and regulations, and the development of new measures relating to biosafety, environmental release and biosecurity, according to report authors Dr Paul Martin and Andrew Balmer.

In common with other modern technologies, synthetic biology is potentially controversial because it raises issues of ownership, misuse, unintended consequences and accidental release.

Dr Martin, of the Institute for Science and Society at The University of Nottingham, said: "Synthetic biology is an exciting and rapidly emerging field that offers many benefits, whilst at the same time raising important social and ethical issues.

"But it is vital that all concerned recognise the importance of maintaining public legitimacy and support. This is an important principle in its own right, but is also imperative if funding and other forms of institutional support are to be maintained. This was clearly shown by the decline in public funding for the genetic modification of crops following the GM food controversy in Europe in the 1990s.

"In order to avoid this, scientific research must not get too far ahead of public attitudes and potential applications should demonstrate clear social benefits. Furthermore, the potential benefits of the technology must not be over-hyped or this risks both creating excessive public anxiety and unrealistic hopes that cannot be fulfilled.

"Also, the scientific community must take, and be seen to be taking, a lead in debating the implications of their research and engaging with broader society around the issues raised by synthetic biology. It is not sufficient to wait until particular issues arise through the practical application of the technology, as this will be too late."

Areas of synthetic biology being investigated include:

·         Biomedical applications, including complex molecular devices for tissue repair, smart drugs, personalised medicine and cells with new properties that improve human health.

·         The production of 'living machines' that can turn biomass into fuels such as ethanol or hydrogen.

·         The creation of synthetic compounds for use in anti-malarial drugs.

·         Environmentally-friendly production of chemicals, making the chemical industry more sustainable.

·         Production of 'smart' materials and biomaterials.

'Synthetic Biology: social and ethical challenges' is an independent report commissioned by the synthetic biology sub-group of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council's (BBSRC) Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel. The views and conclusions in the report are those of the authors and not necessarily those of BBSRC.

BBSRC, with advice from its Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel, is considering the recommendations of the report and will use it conclusions to inform its future policy in this area. 

Professor Nigel Brown, BBSRC Director of Science and Technology, said: "€œSynthetic biology is in the early stages of development in the UK, and it is an appropriate time to address issues of public interest and concern.

"BBSRC already requires its grantholders to address ethical and other social issues but this report will help us to focus on those concerns associated with synthetic biology."

BBSRC is already working with its sister Research Councils on ethical and regulatory issues that might arise with synthetic biology research. BBSRC is working closely with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Royal Society on how to take forward public dialogue and engagement on the science of synthetic biology, and with the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council on wider societal issues.

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Notes to editors:

Copies of the report are available upon request from the BBSRC (contact details below).

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

The Institute for Science and Society (ISS) is a major research centre at The University of Nottingham studying the social, legal, ethical and cultural implications of science and technology. ISS works closely with scientific partners, particularly in regenerative medicine, nanotechnology, infection control, public health and veterinary medicine, and has established an international reputation for interdisciplinary research on the ethical, social and legal issues raised by emerging biotechnologies, including stem cells, tissue engineering, pharmacogenomics and genetic testing.

The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 70 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.

It provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's "only truly global university", it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation - School of Pharmacy).

Its students are much in demand from 'blue-chip' employers. Winners of Students in Free Enterprise for four years in succession, and current holder of UK Graduate of the Year, they are accomplished artists, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, innovators and fundraisers. Nottingham graduates consistently excel in business, the media, the arts and sport. Undergraduate and postgraduate degree completion rates are amongst the highest in the United Kingdom.

Story credits


More information is available from Dr Paul Martin, Institute for Science and Society, University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 9515419, or +44 (0)7941 678674; paul.martin@nottingham.ac.uk; Nancy Mendoza, Media Officer, BBSRC External Relations Unit, on +44 (0)1793 413355, Nancy.Mendoza@bbsrc.ac.u

Tim Utton

Tim Utton - Deputy Director of Communications

Email: tim.utton@nottingham.ac.uk Phone: +44 (0)115 846 8092 Location: University Park

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