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

Five critical steps involved in putting a lander on a comet

How do you land on a comet? That's problem facing the people running Esa's Rosetta mission after the successful rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    We are already chasing our tails because natural biodiversity has already long been replaced with artificial variety

    We are chasing an ever increasingly dangerous food production bubble & trying to prevent it from bursting. We are at war with nature & now have to react quicker & quicker to stay ahead of disaster.

    We think we are clever, but nature is not fooled by our propagandist confidence

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    38 spam - We're already completely reliant on corporations for food production anyway. GM doesn't change much.

    40 Therapne - Again an argument against GM based on anti-capitalism. Fair enough, be anti-capitalist, but it's not a good argument against GM, as it can be used against anything you don't like.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    41.Mike from Brum

    That's genetic modification not synthetic DNA construction - as the article clearly points out.

    That is a radical difference and this IS very new. In WW2 nobody had even heard of DNA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Synthetic Biology is one of the most promising fields in modern biology, and is a potential solution to many of the world's most pressing issues. Speaking as a student of microbiology, it is clear to me that the people who have concerns about the science, do not understand it.

    As with GM, the issue lies not with the science or the application, but with the legislation governing that application.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.


    What time frame do you consider long-term to be? With technology like this is could potentially be hundreds of years before any measurable impact is felt, for instance fossil fuel burning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    @39 Arma1

    This area of science is new & we are still experimenting. As such mistakes are inevitable.
    Except it's not new though is it? We created polyploid crops after the 2nd world war. Compare grain today with grain before WW2 and the older strains look like weeds. Polyploids were created by mutating wild type plants using mustard gas and radiation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    What people do not understand about this technology is there is there is no way to clean up if and experiment goes wrong - not in 10 or 100 or a million years - we will all just have to live (or die) by the consequences.

    If you trust profit-driven corporations not to mess up, then fine but, on the evidence available, I don't. Just look at the mess made by GM!

    [Unsuitable URL removed by Moderator]

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I have no issue with the research/use of synthetic genetics per se so long as the long term impact is FULLY reasearched.

    I think the biggest fear is not to do with the impact on a single animal/plant or even human but on whether any negative impact can be transmitted/spread in a non-controlled fashion

    This area of science is new & we are still experimenting. As such mistakes are inevitable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    We are creating an ever increasing artificial environment in which nature is being rejected & replaced with various artificial bubbles controlled by corporations which we then become reliant upon

    I think we need to tread a lot more carefully when introducing artifical engineered whatevers as some long pathways lead to ultimate disaster & could be years even generations away before finding fault

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    The Daily Mail has turned the the public against GMO technologies with it's sensationalist headlines of "Frankenstein Food".
    If you've been to America, you've eaten GM food. Dolly the sheep was a GMO cloned because she produced a protein in her milk which helped treat CF. It would be great if we could raise the level of education in the UK so that the public weren't duped by crap newspapers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Can't help but think if it wasn't for irrational fear & misinformation, we'd already have a means of producing fuel from synthetic microbes that consume nothing but waste & water.

    Ironically supposed "environental" groups such as Greenpeace are the ones most opposed to this technology. Then again, they're against absolutely everything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    I'm sure that there are many good things about GM but commercial interests tarnished the concept with the 'terminator gene' thus emphasizing the monetary value over the scientific benefits. That's what many people don't like. The best and most successful scientific ideas are those donated by their discoverers e.g. WWW. Let us hope the 'inventors' of SYNBIO are as altruistic and visionary as TBL.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    @32 BluesBerry - "I would like to see the code of conduct always & inevitably precede the scientific "discovery"

    That would be some sort of magic, surely you have to consider morality in the light of what's actually discovered/developed, or do you think there should be people coming up with a speculative moral code based on all future possibilities?

    And don't we already have sci-fi authors?

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    HYS comments don't work in firefox today :( you're making me use IE it's awful

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Here is the critical problem in a synthetic nutshell:
    '...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...:In other words our ethics & morality are not keeping up to our inventions & innovations.
    I would like to see the code of conduct always & inevitably precede the scientific "discovery".

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    The scientific community is very bad at planning for completely irrational and intentionally misleading publicity from newspapers who are far more interested in creating a headline than actually contributing to this world.

    Getting the media on side so they think they can benefit from the true story rather than make one up is vital.

    Ridiculing celebs who back pseudo science is also useful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    The main objections to GM that I've heard have been -

    1. Are we sure it's well tested enough to let it grow outside? What if it goes endemic and damages biodiversity?
    2. Are we sure it's well tested and understood enough to eat?

    Point 1 applies here too. Absolutely we should do the R&D, but lets please be very, very cautious about unleashing it on the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Synthetic Biology, hmm so that's how MP's are created.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I am for this project.

    The benefits could be endless, though I expect the price will be more than 60m.

    A bit like giving a company a few million to look for alternatives to coal.
    "Hey we found this black sticky stuff called oil"

    And we know how that turned out.

    Don't expect that by giving 60m the end product will be free.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    £60M for something that could be as significant as the industrial revolution? Britain was once Great, and made that way through innovation and scientific breakthrough - now we do banking and champion high house prices as being the mark of success - depressing.


Page 4 of 6



  • Children in Africa graphicBaby steps

    Why are more children in Africa living beyond five?

  • Olive oil and olivesFood myth

    Did 1950s Britain get its olive oil from a pharmacy?

  • Rio Ferdinand and David Moyes'Playing to win'

    Memorable quotes from sporting autobiographies BBC Sport

  • Hand washing to contain Ebola in LiberiaEbola virus

    More action is needed to tackle Ebola, say experts

  • shadow of people kissing on grassOutdoor love

    Should the police intervene when people have sex in public?

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.