Analysis: Science and society
Synthetic biology applies engineering techniques to genetic material. E&T reports on a new centre that puts social scientists at the heart of the process.
Research work has started at Imperial College London's Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation, the UK's first publicly-funded dedicated centre for work on developing and integrating biological components. CSynBI will move into its own laboratories once construction work has been completed on top of the aeronautical engineering building on the campus.
The centre will be the first in the UK to try to combine work by natural and social scientists, with staff from the London School of Economics' BIOS centre joining those from Imperial. Professor George Gaskell, pro-director of the LSE, referred to the approach as "socially sustainable innovation".
"Following the troubles in Europe over some applications of recombinant DNA, particularly genetically modified organisms, and risk governance with the Royal Society and other institutions, there has been a realisation that it is necessary to understand the public's perception of risk," said Gaskell.
Gaskell described a possible scenario involving organisms designed to consume toxic waste. "Some would argue that such an application brings significant uncertainties. An organism that has not been through the mill of evolution: might it go on and become even more toxic?"
Lord [Professor Robert] Winston, a guest speaker at the official opening of the centre, used footage of the silent movie 'The Golem' to illustrate the idea of a technology such as synthetic biology going out of control.
Nikolas Rose of the LSE argued: "If the promises of synthetic biology are to be realised, they will be realised within a social context. The fundamental question is whether it is right to do this thing at all.
"What is clear about synthetic biology is that it is not a question of dealing with the social implications later. It seems to me that social questions are built into the very conception of what synthetic biology is trying to do."
Previous attempts to create a single centre to deal with both natural and social science research have run into problems. Professor Paul Rabinow of SynBERC, based at the University of California at Berkeley, complained in a speech in London last year that social concerns often took a back seat in research. He concluded that "secession" was the best way to bring social issues to the fore.
Rose argued that many of the BIOS staff themselves come from a biological sciences background. "A concern of our centre has been to operate a constant dialogue with people doing the basic research," he said, adding that many of the younger scientists entering the field often wanted to address ethical concerns. "If they just stayed at the level of cell biology, they would not be satisfied."
Professor Richard Kitney of Imperial College said the focus of research at CSynBI would be on engineering. He pointed to the fact that the centre has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and sits within Imperial's engineering faculty. "It is in the faculty because of the idea of parts, devices and systems. We will take an engineering approach, using the concepts of abstraction, decoupling and standardisation."
Kitney pointed to the complexity of modern aircraft and integrated circuits as examples of the way in which engineers can understand sophisticated biological systems. "The jury is still out on whether we can really do this - the aim is to find out," he said.
"Parts are often modified DNA, with devices made from a collection of parts that encode human-defined functions. Assembled into systems, they would perform tasks such as counting. We expect this work to lead to much more advanced biosensors and even relatively primitive microprocessors," Kitney explained.
The centre will work on standards for synthetic biology alongside organisations such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is attempting to define standard ways of building and assembling custom DNA sequences. "We are one of the members of a network led by the University of Edinburgh that is looking at standards," said Kitney.
The research will be carried out with a view to licensing start-ups and technology companies - intellectual property from the projects will be licensed through Imperial Innovations.
Kitney was on the Royal Academy of Engineering team that put together a report published last month recommending the UK government to take a long-term view of synthetic biology research.
"I think many people think that synthetic biology is very important in terms of potential for industry, business and commerce. There are strong parallels with the rise of synthetic chemistry in the 19th century, which underlies many of the industries of the 20th century," Kitney argued. "We need a national strategy for a 25-year view."