Will synthetic biology become a GM-style battleground?

Synthetic DNA The manufacture of DNA is central to the emerging science of synthetic biology

Will the emerging science of designing and engineering new forms of life receive the same hostile reception as genetically modified food and crops?

This is the question facing the growing community of academic and commercial researchers exploring the potential of synthetic biology.

For those pioneering this new field, the science offers a whole realm of exhilarating possibilities - dreaming up and building new organisms that will perform exactly what's ordered. It is a vision for taking control of nature.

Synthetic biology is a dimension beyond genetic modification.

While GM involves taking genes from one organism and inserting them in another, synthetic biology involves designing and creating artificial genes and implanting them instead - not just borrowing from the natural world but rewriting it or even reinventing it.

I used virtual reality to try to explain it last year.

At a major conference this week in London - the BioBricks Foundation SB6.0 - excited talk suggested that synthetic biology could become the next big thing in everything from energy to medicines to industry.

Start Quote

You have to bring society with you.”

End Quote Lionel Clarke Shell
Cystic fibrosis

As Science Minister David Willetts put it to the gathering, synthetic biology could "fuel us, heal us and feed us" and the UK government is trumpeting an investment of some £60m for the field.

Organisms such as bacteria can be engineered to detect pathogens in drinking water or produce the key ingredient for anti-malarial drugs.

A synthetic stretch of DNA has been designed to react to a key molecule released by sufferers of cystic fibrosis - and the DNA is further programmed to change colour when the molecule is detected, which could shrink the time needed for tests from 48 hours to just two.

One international project is making synthetic chromosomes for yeast - the most complex organism for which this has been attempted. It would help illuminate the workings of cell biology and allow yeast to be exploited for far more than making bread or beer.

Other goals include biological computing, designing biology to act as electronic circuitry, and artificial photosynthesis, making synthetic leaves to produce fuel.

This is work on a new frontier, spawning new language - biotransformation, biological blueprints, designing a living chassis, seeing cells as factories.

Public appetite

But hovering over the debates is the issue of public acceptance, especially in Europe. For American researchers at the conference, this is less of a challenge - GM food has been eaten in the US for a decade or more.

But if the EU has not approved a new GM crop for cultivation for nearly 20 years, how will the far more radical technologies of synthetic biological organisms go down?

Lionel Clarke, of Shell - whose job title, as head of "biodomain and open innovation" would have been inconceivable a few years ago - warned the conference that industries would not pursue technologies that risked their reputations. He cited Monsanto's experience with GM.

Start Quote

There could well be a backlash but we're desperately trying to be transparent”

End Quote Prof Paul Freemont Imperial College

Dr Clarke chairs an advisory panel for the government, which came up with a road map for synthetic biology development in Britain.

"You have to bring society with you," he said.

"Industries are selling to markets and markets have to be receptive."

With GM, "there may have been an overenthusiastic assumption that if the technology worked then everybody would want it," Dr Clarke added.

Dr Steve Laderman, of Agilent Laboratories, a spin-off from Hewlett Packard, said that while one risk was technical - "Will this function as hoped?", another was linked to the market - "Will people buy it?"

Reshma Shetty, who runs Gingko BioWorks, a synthetic biology company, said that Monsanto "had been portrayed as the most evil corporation" so there had to be more "forward thinking" about explaining the new science to potential consumers.

Two of the organisers of the conference, Prof Richard Kitney and Prof Paul Freemont, of Imperial College, point to the constant engagement of social scientists in all synthetic biology thinking.

Right from the start of each project, the ethical and environmental implications are considered - the aim being to head off the kind of reactions that GM produced.

'Responsible' innovation

Prof Freemont told me: "There could well be a backlash but we're desperately trying to be transparent - it's all open, this event and most of the research is published in open-access literature."

And Prof Kitney said everything was guided by what he called "responsible innovation... which means that this incredibly exciting field has to be developed in the context of what it means for society and the environment and ethics".

One priority is to try to ensure that the research, much of which is highly international and collaborative, all operates on those principles.

Next week, national academies from the UK, the US and China will meet in London to discuss the next steps in synthetic biology, including developing codes of conduct. One risk might be that a project in one country proves unnerving to others and colours the reputation of the entire field.

This effort to be proactive does distinguish these early days of synthetic biology from the equivalent stage of GM - and its pioneers hope to convince people of the likely benefits before they are put off by negative stories about the risks.

GM's terrible launch in Europe coloured impressions of it for a generation.

Synthetic biology, which is in its infancy, is not widely known about. No product of this new research has yet reached the European market. A defining test is still to come.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    In and of itself, synthetic biology is neutral, just as a hammer is a hammer. A hammer can be used for good or evil. Overall, the good uses outweigh the evil uses of a hammer, and using it for evil tends to get one caught rather quickly, and has little impact on wider society (sucks to be the victim though), so we allow widespread ownership and free uses of hammers. (continued in next comment)

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    biological computing, designing biology to act as electronic circuitry

    Thats already over 20 years old, USA created biological circuitry years ago, a computer that grows, whats happened to I do not know.

    My worry is that we have created so many bubbles that rely upon artificial production.
    One day, these bubbles will burst, just as all bubbles burst & fallout will be horendous

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.


    I would like to see you try and bring down the corporation. We oth know it's not going to happen.

    Not unless you are Superman

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Once again DaMeeja will divert the public focus. The problem isn't the science or scientists. The problem is what the Corporations do with it. They will weaponise or monopolise the products otherwise they're not interested. Scientists gave you an open internet look at how the Corporations are trying to shape it now. Science won't end world hunger, controls on Corporations will.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    All I want from science is warp drive, a cloaking device, and a sidekick named Spock

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Will synthetic biology become a GM-style battleground?
    It has been for decades and, as usual, money walks over the people.
    GM is purely about monopolising control of the worlds food - the plants do not produce seed, which will therefore be used for leverage/profit.
    Synthetic biology - cheap soldiers ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    stereotonic, you say "You cannot control nature .. nature has her own way of keeping the balance right"
    I don't think this is true - its like saying if man kills lots of Dodo's then nature will produce them more rapidly to ensure the status quo is preserved - didn't happen did it ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    The possibilities are limitless, but the reality is likely to be more mundane. Issues with GM relate to swapping plant & animal genes. The cross kingdom/phylum GMO need stricter controls than usual. Any viable organism created will be a new niche for bugs & virus to adapt to. These bio-blocks will be treated as a bio-security risk from the start. Aggressive IP protection created -ve backlash.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    GM-style battleground?

    Of course it will. There are lots's of people who don't gasp the concepts of GM or don't understand the processes, let alone the impact or consequences. Heck, Even the scientists don't even know those fully either!

    What hope is there if some people will only listen to and believe the biased "Frankenstein Monster" media-storms that are bounded to occur.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Why do people seem to think that we can just evolve technology perfectly with no hitches whatsoever? Unfortuntely, in the real world we have to experiment and make mistakes before we can learn from them. This is the future, and the only way we'll ever know if it's right is if we go for it.

    We're able to do amazing things, it's not something to be afraid of.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    @Viva Verdi

    But she also gives us food, materials for shelter, and fluffy bunnies

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    @ 10 Muuser

    Mighty Nature gave us earthquakes, cancer, birth deformities, arsenic.....

    She is not exactly 100% on our side, is she?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Science is powering away at speeds not previously seen, especially in the biological and medical fields. It does sadden me however that such innovations do not reach the market solely because the public's ignorance leads to fear and deliberation. We need a far stronger scientific education drive in this country in both children and adults, to remove this unnecessary barrier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    With this new technology it could possibly lead to crops that thrive in arid conditions, ending famine in poor cpuntries.

    That has to be worth something?

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Wow, so a new technology that could "fuel us, heal us and feed us" gets a whopping £60m (probably not new money, just re-allocated from some other budget line).

    Compare this with amounts handed out to bankers, govt PR consultants, the army's banging its head against the wall in Afghanistan, gagging NHS whistle-blowers, the Royal family, senior Civil Servant's massive pension pots...etc. etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.


    Yes, I can see how that will work.

    One thing about that though, common sense is so rare nowadays that it has become a super power

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    With our economic system, GM has given us mule crops, overuse of land dependent on glyphosate & fertilizer chemicals, genetic pollution of adjacent land.

    What is in the SynBio toy box?

    I am sure the people who gave us:
    plastic land mines,
    agent orange,
    killer drones,

    are already playing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.


    Education and common sense would do it. . . . . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.


    Yes we should tackle overpopulation, but how is the question?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    'It's a vision for taking control af nature'

    If thats the case, you will lose. You cannot control nature, and you should not try to. As we well know, nature has her own way of keeping the balance right. Upset that balance and who knows what she will to . . . . . . Best thing to do would be to tackle over population.
    Isn't controlling the population nature's job? So we'll lose?


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