Synthetic biology is one of the latest fields of modern life sciences. Its aim is to use genetic building blocks to engineer and programme (micro-)organisms. Alongside new applications, however, there are also risks and ethical questions. SYNBIOSAFE was one of the first projects in the EU on the ethical and safety aspects of synthetic biology.
Synthetic biology promises to provide useful applications in many fields of science and technology, such as in the production of specific pharmaceuticals or the generation of energy. It was clear from a very early stage that such technology has the potential to revolutionise not only biology.
However, there are also possible risks that might result from deliberate misuse or from accidents. As a result, it is even more important to develop bio-safety strategies. At European level, SYNBIOSAFE was one of the first EU projects on synthetic biology that focused on ethical and safety aspects and attempted to contribute to the development of socially acceptable solutions.
The project initially comprised a documentation of the state of research and the then current discussion on risks and ethics, presented as part of the first conference on synthetic biology in Europe in June 2007 in Zurich. An open electronic forum and an international workshop were intended to further stimulate the debate in Europe.
In conjunction with an investigation of bio-safety awareness amongst European researchers, this provided the basis for a highly regarded list of priority topics. The list was drawn up in collaboration with leading scientists in the fields of synthetic biology and secondary research and was published in a specialist journal.
The development of an awareness of the potential for risks and the search for methods to assess risks must begin at an early stage in the training of young scientists
When many individual scientists work on the production of synthetic components, there is a need for quality standards that can also be checked
Ethical problems result not only from the fact that life can be created synthetically , but also if for instance access to new technical opportunities is seriously restricted by means of patents and licenses
The many still unanswered questions mean that communication on the topic of synthetic biology is limited. Unlike in the case of genetic engineering, NGOs have not started any large-scale public debate.
As synthetic biology develops into a promising science and engineering field, we need to have clear ideas and priorities regarding its safety, security, ethical and public dialogue implications. Based on an extensive literature search, interviews with scientists, social scientists, a 4 week long public e-forum, and consultation with several stakeholders from science, industry and civil society organisations, we compiled a list of priority topics regarding societal issues of synthetic biology for the years ahead. The points presented here are intended to encourage all stakeholders to engage in the prioritisation of these issues and to participate in a continuous dialogue, with the ultimate goal of providing a basis for a multi-stakeholder governance in synthetic biology. Here we show possible ways to solve the challenges to synthetic biology in the field of safety, security, ethics and the science-public interface.
Drawing an analogy to past debates over biotechnology, some stakeholders fear that synthetic biology (SB) could raise public concerns. Accordingly, 'lessons from the past' should be applied to avoid controversies. However, biotechnology in the 1990s is not the only possible comparator. The potential to become contested has been attributed to a number of other novel technologies. Looking at nanotechnology for example, controversies have not materialised to the extent predicted. The article discusses factors relevant for controversies over technologies as well as differences to the situation when modern biotechnology began to proliferate. Certain properties attributed to SB in the discussion so far indeed suggest a potential for controversies, but perceptions may follow those on other aspects of biotechnology subject to local contingencies. Finally, it is questioned whether ELSI research should see its task in applying lessons from the past to ease technology introduction. Rather than being embedded in a linear model of technology development, social scientists take an interest in developments 'upstream' where technologies take shape.
12/2006 - 11/2008