Analysis: Synthetic biologists tackle awareness issues

Researchers developing custom-built living organisms are recognising that they have to win public support for their work.

Scientists and policymakers have determined that the nascent synthetic biology industry has to engage with the public if it is to head off the problems that genetically modified (GM) crop technology suffered in the 1990s.

Synthetic biology, which uses human-defined genetic sequences to produce customised biological organisms, is a rapidly developing field that is now raising concern about the safeguards that are in place. Biologists in the field feel that the dangers are exag--gerated, but are worried that they may lose the ability to pursue research if they do not work harder to influence public opinion.

Researchers at the BioSysBio conference organised by the IET in late April said they were concerned that synthetic biology might turn out to be a replay of the GM debate, which culminated in the technology becoming immensely unpopular in some countries.

"We have to get involved in an active process to get engaged with the public to explain why this is important," said Professor Richard Kitney of Imperial College, London. "'GM crops' was a disaster. The whole public has been turned off GM crops."

At the Engineering Life seminar on synthetic biology organised by the Royal Society, of Chemistry, Baron Patrick Jenkin of Roding warned: "Scientists have a licence to practise from the public." To maintain their ability to practise in certain areas, Lord Jenkin explained that a "two-way engagement" is essential. Noting that the area is comparatively new, he added: "I don't think the public has begun to hoist onboard the huge potential benefits and risks."

So I strongly endorse the need for scientists to get out there and talk about it. It mustn't go the way of the GM crop debate. That was an absolute disaster from which we are only just beginning to recover."

Professor Brian Wynne, associate director of the Economic and Social Research Council's Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics, said the issue of synthetic biology raises "questions about the forms of regulation that we have developed since the Second World War". He asked whether risk assessment is enough for "managing the issues that fields like this are generating".

Philipp Holliger, group leader at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, said: "The dangers should not be over-stated." He explained that the main thrust of research lies in 'greenhouse' organisms: "They would not survive on the mean streets of nature. This has happened where genetically enhanced organisms have been released. They have been competed out of existence by existing organisms."

As well the risks involved with the technology, Wynne pointed out that exaggeration of potential benefits is driving scepticism among the public: "We are very familiar with the hype problem. It is often a complaint that scientists are exaggerating the promises of the benefits that might be made. But there are structural forces that encourage scientists to do this. Where would you get the funding if you didn't make the promises?

"If we are talking about evidence-based science policy, we might want to work out the promises and expectations in a way that is accountable," Wynne added.

Kitney said it is important to put across what synthetic biology could achieve, particularly for the UK and Europe. He pointed to the situation with microelectronics in the 1970s, when European players failed to keep up with US and Japanese companies: "The scientific and engineering community is of the view that we missed out because we didn't engage the government, and this is a mission of mine. We all need to understand how important this area is."

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