Playing God?

17 Mar 2010 00:00:00.000


The ethics and implications of creating artificial life will be hotly debated at a public science event taking place in Nottingham this weekend.

Should We Create Synthetic Life?, taking place at the Broadway Media Centre on Sunday, has been organised by staff and students at The University of Nottingham as a way of opening up a public dialogue on the new science of synthetic biology.

The public debate, which coincides with a major scientific symposium being held at the University, will hear from leading scientific experts and social scientists about recent advances in what is rapidly becoming one of the most controversial areas of biology.


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Dr Natalio Krasnagor, of The University of Nottingham’s School of Computer Science, who is organising the symposium, said: “The new science of synthetic biology aims to re-engineer life at the molecular level and even create completely new forms of life. It has the potential to create new medicines, biofuels, assist climate change through carbon capture, and develop solutions to help clean up the environment.”

However, opponents of synthetic biology are quick to voice concerns about its potential misuse in creating new biological weapons, the uncontrolled release of genetically-modified organisms that could be harmful to health and the environment and, at a more philosophical level, whether scientists are ‘playing God’.

Dr Paul Martin is a social scientist in the University’s School of Sociology and Social Policy who has worked on the ethics of synthetic biology. He said: “We want to begin an open debate about how we should use this technology, what its social benefits and dangers might be, and how it might be controlled. We want as many people to come along as possible to join in. Everyone is welcome.”

The event will take place at the Broadway Media Centre on Broad Street on Sunday March 21 from 11am to 12.30pm and will involve brief talks from leading synthetic biologists and social scientists, followed by discussion time with members of the public and experts in the field.

A free lunch and report on the ethics of synthetic biology will be provided to anyone who pre-registers online at  www.synbiont.org/pe/  or by e-mailing Nick Poxon at  nzp@cs.nott.ac.uk

The scientific symposium  Challenges in Top-Down, Bottom-Up and Computational Approaches in Synthetic Biology  is taking place at the University from March 18 to 22. The symposium will focus on the ways in which synthetic biologists are attempting to create ‘artificial life’ as a way of examining one of the biggest scientific questions of all time — how life emerged from the ‘primordial soup’ billions of years ago. Two separate routes are currently being used: a top-down approach in which a primordial or minimal cell is generated by systematically reducing a biological cell’s genome until only essential genes remain and a bottom-up approach that seeks to assemble from scratch components or information units until an aspect of ‘life’ emerges. Further details are available on the web at



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Notes to editors:  The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings.
More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.

The University 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), and was named ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.
 Nottingham was designated as a Science City in 2005 in recognition of its rich scientific heritage, industrial base and role as a leading research centre. Nottingham has since embarked on a wide range of business, property, knowledge transfer and educational initiatives (www.science-city.co.uk) in order to build on its growing reputation as an international centre of scientific excellence. The University of Nottingham is a partner in Nottingham: the Science City.


Story credits

More information about the public debate is available from Dr Paul Martin on +44 (0)115 951 5419, 07941 678674 or by e-mail at paul.martin@nottingham.ac.uk. For further details about the scientific symposium, please contact Dr Natalio Krasnogor on +44 (0)115 846 7592, e-mail natalio.krasnogor@nottingham.ac.uk

Emma Thorne

Emma Thorne - Media Relations Manager

Email: emma.thorne@nottingham.ac.uk Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5793 Location: University Park

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