Will synthetic biology become a GM-style battleground?

Synthetic DNA Image copyright SPL
Image caption 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.

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.

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.