Posted on behalf of Barbara Casassus.
Synthetic biology, heralded by some as the next biotechnology revolution, could be seriously undermined if the public is not informed about its potential benefits early on, according to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report today.
The field, which emerged more than 15 years ago, allows researchers to engineer biological systems or ‘parts’ in a complex way. It pushes the boundaries of biology, for example, even challenging the rule that the DNA alphabet consists of four letters.
Fears are that public opposition on a scale comparable to that now facing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Europe and Japan could be a major hurdle, says biologist Jim Philp, the lead author of Emerging Policy Issues in Synthetic Biology and a policy analyst in the OECD’s Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry.
A public debate should be launched immediately if synthetic biology — known as synbio — is to be accepted, he urges. “You can’t just say you have developed a new technology and tell people to go away and use the products it has helped create,” says Philp.
Governments should promote discussion between scientists, policy-makers and the public — harnessing social media and, to spark young people’s interest, launching competitions modelled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) undergraduate synbio scheme, the report says.
It also highlights the United Kingdom as a country that has taken public opinion seriously so far (although the United States leads in public research investment in synbio). The UK Technology Strategy Board published a road map in July 2012 as a blueprint for synbio development up until 2030, covering research and innovation, and also developing technology for commercial use.
The report also discusses the scope of synbio for fuel, medicine, food and the environment, and potential stumbling blocks including issues such as cost, intellectual property and regulations. It calls for governments to introduce financial incentives, and for the OECD to foster international cooperation to prevent duplication of research and to help overcome regulatory and other pitfalls.
Another OECD report to be published at the end of the year will focus on synbio and the bioeconomy. It will look at prospects for synbio to help replace the oil barrel in some 50 or 60 years’ time by using microorganisms to make fuel, chemicals and plastics.