Science and Technology Innovation Program

Navigating the Emerging Science of Synthetic Biology

Cover Story, Centerpoint, February 2009

Feb 02, 2009

Groundbreaking research is happening in the field of synthetic biology—that is, the building or redesigning of living organisms, such as bacteria, so they can perform specific functions. Examples of what might be possible include converting cellulose into biofuels or using synthetic organisms to create new pharmaceuticals.

Thanks to a two-year grant from Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Foresight and Governance Project (F&G) launched the Synthetic Biology Project to study the policy implications of synthetic biology as well as its potential benefits and possible harmful effects. F&G is tracking public perceptions through focus groups and polls; monitoring press coverage in the United States and Europe to gauge how the media is framing synthetic biology; assessing regulatory systems in place; and engaging groups in the United States and abroad, from researchers to government agencies, to study and discuss this issue.

To educate the public and inspire discussion, F&G recently launched an informative, user-friendly website which includes numerous articles and video clips, and features interviews with scientists in the field. The website's first podcast is up, presenting Jay Keasling, a professor and researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, who discusses the excitement generated by synthetic biology and his own pharmaceutical research. The podcast is hosted by Karen Schmidt, a longtime science journalist and author of the publication, "NanoFrontiers: Visions for the Future of Nanotechnology."

"From a chemicals point of view… I see synthetic biology as being the route to a whole new area of synthetic chemistry," said Keasling. He does however express concern with the potential for over-regulation of this burgeoning science to stifle innovation. "What we don't want to see happen is see the industry become so regulated that we can't do the necessary biological engineering we need to do to save lives and save the environment… We want to have balanced regulation."

In addition to discussing the potential benefits of synthetic biology, Keasling, who is working on a new anti-malarial drug, addresses the fears of misuse and ethical concerns regarding synthetic biology. "In the future, when we have a lot of ‘off-the-shelf' components, how are those going to impact our ability to manipulate organisms and one's ability to manipulate an organism for evil, as opposed to good?" he asks.

A national telephone poll conducted last fall by F&G's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) and Peter D. Hart Research revealed that 9 in 10 people have heard little or nothing about this emerging field of science. This new insight into limited public awareness of such a cutting-edge technology comes as a new administration takes office. Public policy experts are concerned the federal government may be behind the curve in engaging citizens on the potential benefits and risks posed by technologies that could have a significant impact on society.

"Early in the administration of the next president, scientists are expected to take the next major step toward the creation of synthetic forms of life," said F&G Director David Rejeski. "Yet the results from recent polls about synthetic biology show that most adults have heard just a little or nothing at all about it."

The possibilities of synthetic biology are startling. This is a science that combines the principles and techniques of engineering, biology, and nanotechnology to change an organism's genetic makeup. Using proteins and DNA to create new products, these biological factories will produce improved medical treatments, next generation fuels and chemicals, and a wide variety of other sophisticated technologies.

Ethical Considerations
As the public learns more about this science, questions and concerns will arise about the ethics of creating new living entities. The science and its applications are raising such questions as: Are synthetic biologists playing God? Are these scientists purposely changing the definition of what is life? Will synthetic biology's expected products and profits be stymied by policymakers and the public who object to researchers' soon-to-be-realized attempts to build life from scratch in a lab?

To discuss such fears, Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics who chairs the Department of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke at a January 8 PEN meeting, titled, "Synthetic Biology: Is Ethics a Showstopper?"

Caplan was introduced by Andrew Maynard, the chief science adviser for PEN and the Synthetic Biology Project. Maynard said, "As soon as you go down to the nanoscale, it is literally mind-blowing what evolution has provided and produced over billions of years, which raises the question: Can we match this? Can we build on it?"

Scientists are already manipulating genes in plants and animals; imagine the possibilities in agriculture and genetics as scientists build upon that. And, imagine the questions and dilemmas this issue can and will generate for years to come.

When looking at synthetic biology, or any emerging technology, "Part of the problem is there's an attitude in the culture that emerging technologies always get ahead of ethical, social, and legal reflections about them," said Caplan. But he argued an ethics lag does not exist.

Caplan co-authored one of the first published articles on synthetic biology 10 years ago in Science magazine. The key questions he raised then, including misuse of such technology, the health and environmental impact, and patent rights, are among the same ones raised today. Many of these stated concerns, he said, are policy issues, not ethical ones. Two issues that do fall under ethical concerns are: reductionism, or reducing life to genetics, and whether designing living things is playing God. To the latter, Caplan said, major religions do not oppose manipulating nature, particularly if societal benefits are imminent.

"The core reasons it is disturbing to the public is that it's facing fundamental metaphysical beliefs people have and calling them into question," he said. "We must engage the community to address their deep philosophical fears."

In the Media
A recent trans-Atlantic study commissioned by F&G, titled, "Trends in American and European Press Coverage of Synthetic Biology,", written by Eleonore Pauwels and Ioan Ifrim, tracked media coverage of synthetic biology from 2003-2007, finding a significant amount, including coverage in large-circulation newspapers, on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the United States and Europe, news stories mentioning potential benefits outnumbered those mentioning potential risks, but in the United States, more than half of the stories exclusively described potential benefits. In the European press, just less than a third of the stories exclusively mentioned potential benefits.

"This reflects, to some degree, the European emphasis on the so-called precautionary approach, which insists on the need to invest in risk research and to promote public engagement at the early stage of the risk/benefit debate," said Pauwels. "The U.S. view—more optimistic on the potential of synthetic biology—is in line with an approach that seeks to promote scientific and technological advances along with self-regulation and education of the public by the scientific community."

Both called for increased oversight and regulation of this emerging field. How synthetic biology is portrayed in the press will shape public perception, notably how supporters and opponents frame the issues surrounding its development.

Synthetic biology has tremendous potential. Billions of people from all corners of the globe stand to benefit from revolutionary medical treatments, biofuels, and other as-of-yet unimagined innovations. But can humans be trusted to be good stewards of a technology some see as manipulating life? As the synthetic biology field moves forward, this and many other questions about the science must be addressed if potential risks are to be minimized and the benefits maximized.

Experts & Staff