Report on synthetic biology public dialogue

21 June 2010

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), together with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) initiated a project last year to develop a dialogue with the public regarding their concerns and aspirations in the emerging field of synthetic biology. They have now published a report on the findings from a series of public workshops and stakeholder interviews on the on the science and issues surrounding synthetic biology (see press release) and will use the findings to inform their strategic plans on funding and policy in this area.

The process initially involved interviews with various stakeholders such as consumers, scientists, religious groups, industry and regulators in order to provide some background and inform the workshops. They were asked about the field as well as potential applications and ethical consideration. Three workshops then explored different aspects of synthetic biology; the first explored views on science and technology, the second views on synthetic biology and how this is funded and regulated and the final workshop explored specific applications of synthetic biology. The discussions encompassed a number of applications of synthetic biology including medical, energy, environmental and food. Areas for future dialogues were also identified.

In general, the findings of these workshops showed that there was support for synthetic biology; especially if it can help address current concerns such as the energy crisis and treatment of diseases. However, the acceptability of research was dependant on how much progress could be made in each application area. There were concerns about control of biological organisms, who benefits, health or environmental impacts, misuse and governance. A number of conclusions were reached as to how to regulate innovation, the unique nature of this field and developing the capabilities of scientists to think through responsibilities. It was felt that continued dialogue was needed in order ensure that different stakeholder views are considered and incorporated into developing practices.

The recent report of the creation of a bacterial cell controlled by a synthetic genome (see previous news) has also stimulated a lot of debate in this field and lead to a hearing in the US Congress (see Reuters news). Although the hearing concluded that there are no immediate security, environmental or ethical concerns arising from developments in this field, there is some concern from researchers about the impact of regulations and patents in this field (see BBC news).

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