A Proactive Discussion of Synthetic Biology

Cheryl Scott

June 1, 2012

4 Min Read

Experts in synthetic biology research, law, ethics, and social science from more than a dozen institutions gathered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, DC, on 8–9 November 2010 to discuss “Societal Issues Arising from Synthetic Biology: What Lies Ahead.” The workshop was organized by the Department of Energy’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. After plenary presentations on the first day, almost 70 participants broke into groups to discuss potential applications of synthetic biology as well as societal challenges and pressing research needs. As summarized in the closing remarks, the potential challenges and benefits of this technology must be managed with caution and the benefits justly distributed. As with genetic engineering, wise regulations can maximize benefits and minimize risks, and a responsible mind-set is required for everyone involved.

Plenary Speakers

John Glass of the J. Craig Venter Institute opened the workshop presenting recent work to synthesize and transplant the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides and transplant into the “shell” of a different mycoplasma species. The aim is to build a minimal cell for exploration into early biological organization and functioning. Ultimately this could lead to new vaccines and other high-value products as well as advancing our understanding of fundamental biological processes.

Next, Nathan Hillson of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addressed important questions about what qualifies as “synthetic” biological research: the entire synthesis of a living organism or something less ambitious (e.g., large-scale reengineering of multiple enzymatic pathways inside a cell). And he challenged the attendees to define what unique possibilities it can offer: “What can you do with synthetic biology that would otherwise be impossible?”

Tom Murray (president of the Hastings Center in New York) focused on historical lessons, beginning with the fundamental principle of bioethics. “Good ethical policy begins with good facts about the relevant science.” Context is everything: If the first outcomes of this synthetic biology are beneficial, then acceptance is likely to follow. He said that practical ethics are more important than abstract moral theory. And important policy questions need to be spelled out in accessible terms. Benefits — when realized — must be disseminated with a sense of “justice for all.”

Breakout Discussions: Outcomes

After the plenary talks — and other presentations from Sloan and DOE grantees describing their work — the first breakout groups were charged with considering the potential uses of synthetic biology. Their main conclusion was that the principal outcome will be biological discovery to improve understanding of biological processes, organizations, regulation, and activities. Additional expectations include bioproduction of industrial products, fuels, therapeutics, detergents, and vaccines. Uses will be seen in health, industry, environmental areas, agriculture, water, and perhaps even architecture, space, and various forms of waste remediation. Synthetic biology might serve as a “molecular printer” in the sense that a product could be ordered after being designed on a computer. More speculative uses were also mentioned, including “hybrid” applications in the microelectronics and nanotechnology areas. Personalized medicine could involve specially mutated self-products, radically modified (or even entirely redesigned) organisms, and cells with different operating systems or applications that could be externally regulated.

Potential “game changers” for synthetic biology could come in a variety of ways, not all of them benign. If the first uses of synthetic biology were military; if they affected human behavior; if an accident occurred (or venture capital failed to materialize); if the first uses were seen as trivial (e.g., cosmetic or stigmatizing) and/or their benefits viewed as unfairly distributed and imposed by an arrogant or elitist community; or if a particular community were victim to unforeseen negative consequences — then the technology’s acceptance might at best be much slower than that of genetic engineering.

The second morning, reconfigured break-out groups looked at legal, societal, and public acceptance issues. Many of those could challenge a legal system that is ill-prepared to consider them (e.g., in relation to biodiversity and international competitiveness). Intellectual property will be disputed. Like biotechnology in general, synthetic biology is less a “thing” than a tool-kit. Can a regulatory framework be built, or can the existing regulations adapt to evolve with biotechnology?

Additional communities — including those with religious perspectives — need to be invited to these discussions, with respect given to all. Without a common understanding, it may be hard to engage the public. Open discussion both about the promise and potential risks must be free of paternalism (the “If you knew what we know, you’d agree with us” mind-set) that can quickly become toxic.

Lori Knowles (University of Alberta) summed up the workshop, noting the many remaining questions, among them definitional: What is synthetic biology, and who belongs in the community of synthetic biology practitioners? Knowles noted that people with subject matter expertise (insiders familiar with the challenges of this new technology) need to be at the forefront of discussion. The first big success will be a boon, but the first failure (no matter its scale) will change the game in the other direction. This nascent form of biotechnology can learn from both the successes and mistakes of those who went before.

About the Author

Author Details
Cheryl Scott is senior technical editor of BioProcess International. This is based on the meeting report that can be downloaded here: www.synbioproject.org/process/assets/files/6602/_draft/social_issues_synthetic_biology_report.pdf.

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