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Synthetic Biology: hope and hype

Talking about Synthetic Biology

Talking about Synthetic Biology

16 December 2009

Inviting public input into an emerging area of science.

Synthetic Biology is an emerging scientific approach defined by the application of engineering and design principles to biological and biomimetic (biologically-mimicking) systems. By using this approach, scientists are beginning to redesign, and even create from scratch, biological components (building blocks), machines and whole systems to perform new functions. The applications of these new tools are varied and exciting – from bacteria that synthesise medicines to components for biological computers.

An evening discussion event for the public at local science centre At-Bristol helped to get under the skin of this exciting area of research and its ethical, legal and social dimensions. The evening was facilitated by researchers from the University of Bristol-based Synthetic Components Network, whose aim is to understand and redesign the building blocks of biological systems. Biochemist and lead investigator of the Network, Professor Dek Woolfson, set the scene, introducing Synthetic Biology and its uses - from developing drugs for malaria to designing synthetic bacteria. Fellow Network member ethicist Dr Ainsley Newson expanded the discussion to ethical thinking around Synthetic Biology, challenging the audience to explore questions of how the research should progress, who should use it, and how applications of the science should be regulated.

Discussions continued at tables where Network members – from engineers to social scientists – talked with small groups of members of the public. Many interesting questions were raised, including: What properties might emerge when you put molecular components from different sources together? Are we looking for technological fixes to non-technical problems? And if we open access to the information to all, and make sure the science is well understood, will that dispel any fears about Synthetic Biology?

The field of Synthetic Biology is at such an early stage that the number of potential avenues open to researchers is huge. This is where public engagement can be really useful for researchers. Says Dek Woolfson, “Even though initially I felt a little nervous about talking to the public about my research, I find real value in the conversations that result from these interactions. They provoke me to consider how best to present and discuss my work; the balance that I should strive for between fundamental (basic) and applied research; and which approaches the general public might consider legitimate and acceptable. They also prompt me to consider my responsibilities as an active researcher, not only in conducting the research, but how it might be considered and used by others.”

Ainsley Newson adds: “Addressing potential issues that might arise from new and emerging technologies is important. While some may be wary about doing public engagement ‘too early’ we found our audience to be genuinely interested in, and intrigued by, synthetic biology. Using ethics as an ingredient to public engagement is also beneficial as it can serve as a ‘handle’ to get people thinking about science in its broader context.”

The questions raised above are not easy to address, but have helped underline the importance of public engagement, an integral part of the Synthetic Components Network’s activities. Dek is also open to the idea that involving public voices early in the research process may affect the focus of the Network’s research.

“It is essential to engage with the public at a number of levels. It is no longer appropriate to talk merely about ‘public education’ in science and technology, we must enter into dialogues to find out what the general public thinks about research, much of which ultimately it funds. Our Network takes this seriously, having among its members academics and external interested parties involved in ethical, legal and social aspects of Synthetic Biology research, alongside experts in public engagement.”

This is the start of a journey for the Synthetic Components Network and public engagement. Judging by the issues raised during this event, it’s clear that it’s going to be a very interesting ride.

Further information

Dr Ainsley Newson, Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Ethics, Community-Based Medicine, can be contacted by email at:
Find out more about public engagement and the Synthetic Components Network.

Feedback from the discussion event (PDF, 104 KB).

Please contact Professor Dek Woolfson for further information.