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 106.

    Aristotle argued that true Ethics includes the principle of "non-maleficence."; i.e.; one does not do evil that good may come of it. I prefer Aristotle to Mr Shukman, at least Aristotle knew what he was talking about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    As a non scientific geek, I found the following read quite enlightening.


    I suppose they understand the implications more than us mere plebs... it appears some here on HYS seem unable to comprehend possibilities of things going wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Surely that £60mil would be better spent on a Christmas party for our MPs, teachers, social work co-ordination managers, local council execs, asylum seekers - whether they are Christian or not - and not wasted on those underserving types who might benefit from it (unless the comply with the aforementioned groups) and/or paid for the research

    ... and you wonder why so many of us are so cynical?

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Any benefits that happen will be bought by the super rich and priviledged and "rationed" for everyone else. As per usual.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    So you are telling me that lifeforms will not be manufactured to be used as a potential weapon - or tested and antidote found to inoculate troops?

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Humans (and a lot of other natural lifeforms) already have enough trouble with present natural organism (like Ebola Virus) without mankind concocting some form of artificial "stuff" that might adapt and give the world a run for its money.

    Like Newton said - cause and effect - for each action there is usually an equal reaction. The road to hell is paved with good intentions - trust scientists now?

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    I got as far as "dreaming up and building new organisms that will perform exactly what's ordered". Did you say scientists, or fantasists?

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    98(continued) The US medical profession is not going after GM foods or any other food that may be causing problems because that would be killing the golden goose. The scientists that created them work for money so they also will not kill the goose by saying oops we made a mistake and this is not fit for human consumption,

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    95. 94 - Users of GM seeds sign an agreement that they will not use seeds from first copt to plant another crop - US farmer got in trouble over this with soybeans. Wheat farmer in oregon stuck with crop that is suppose to be organic because GM wheat is in it and seeds apparently blew in from an experimental field.

    Funny US Gov as forced GM in last 10 years & thats when obesity in kids took off

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    60 million for the future of biology? Whereas HS2 gets billions, the banks get billions, corrupt nations get billions in foreign aid and the politicians little projects in Iraq and Afghanistan get billions. Our government really needs to sort out its priorities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    "One international project is making synthetic chromosomes for yeast - the most complex organism for which this has been attempted."

    Years away from making a synthetic drink that packs the punch (pardon the pun) of a pan galactic gargle blaster, then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    The GM crops were created by these companies it's their property, people choose to buy their seeds knowing they cannot replant them because they will still produce more crops and make more money. I watched on watchdog that Flora spent £27 million on creating a new flavoured butter. If the GM seeds were fertile the company probably wouldn't make any money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    To those in support of this, yes it COULD lead to something useful, but every new invention can, and almost certainly will be, turned into a new weapon, or turned into a blackmail control by big business. GM foods may produce a bigger crop BUT they are designed to be infertile so you can't keep some as seed for the following year and have to keep buying from the patent holder from now to infinity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    A synthetic comments section that is more closed than open. We are more than used to it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    I don't see why people hate the companies that get involved with this stuff, I would much rather see a company make money from doing something good than doing something bad or even neutral. Mark Zuckerberg is loved for making a website but a company that creates medicine or better crops is somehow a villain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    @89 fuzzy

    By wise she nature I assume you mean the heartless, bloody in tooth and claw crucible where life without any designing is modified by survival of the fittest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    I can't wait for a the first synthetic news reader to be created, then we won't have to pay them £120k to read an autocue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Frightening isn't it, the monsters man could create with his ignorant tinkering. It's a wonder nature, in her wisdom, created such a beast. Perhaps she should have stopped at dinosaurs. Trouble (or the beauty) is, in a real universe, anything goes, else it'd be no universe at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    The most important question is who will be profiting from it, and can THEY be trusted.
    Recent news is antielilepsy drugs causing developmental harm to foetuses. The dangers of Valium were not known when prescribed like sweeties in the '70s, effects of Prozac on women not discovered until after it was released. Vioxx; new diabetes drugs->pancreatc cancer...

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    lol don't know if I'm being marked down by those for or against the process.

    The middle way of 'proceed but with caution' appears to be unappealing to both groups!

    When you play with the building blocks of existence (dna) without knowing what you are doing, the outcome can go either way.

    Without caution the dangers of creating something worse than cancer are as great as curing all mans' ills.


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