Thursday, 15 March 2012

Synthetic Biology

At first glance, the term sounds like an oxymoron. Synthetic implies something not quite natural while biology, as the science of living things, lies at the core of nature. Yet synthetic biology has joined the list of new and emerging technologies that is engaging scientists and social scientists alike. As with many other new technologies, the public has little understanding of what this radical new field of study is all about.

The current issue of Public Understanding of Science takes a major step in facilitating this understanding. Synthetic biology is quite simply breaking boundaries as it involves creating artificial biological systems but even scientists do not agree on what it specifically entails. In her introductory piece, Nicole Kronberger, cites an expert as saying: “If you ask five people to define synthetic biology, you will get six answers.”

According to Kronberger, the term synthetic biology itself is a hundred years old, having been coined by the French chemist Stéphane Leduc in 1912 but it is very recently that it has started shaping up to be a whole new field of academic study. 

Kronberger’s introduction provides a good overview of the four articles and a commentary on synthetic biology featured in the special issue. One of the key questions, from a public understanding point of view, is how similar and how different is synthetic biology from earlier technologies such as genetic modification. Although the potential for generating debates is high, Helge Torgersen and Jürgen Hampel say in their article that analogies cannot be made between synthetic biology and GM. Among the significant differences between them is the fact that synthetic biology does not involve tangible products such as food. Hence, they argue that synthetic biology is much less likely to be controversial.

Kronberger, however, acknowledges that “the synthetic biology community is aware that its research has the potential to be controversial.

In a recent issue of Nature, published earlier this month, Genya V. Dana, Todd Kuiken, David Rejeski and Allison A. Snow raise questions about the potential risks of synthetic living organisms: “Unlike transgenic crops, synthetic microbes will be altered in more sophisticated and fundamental ways (such as elimination of metabolic pathways), making them potentially more difficult to regulate, manage and monitor. They might also have environmental impacts that are difficult to predict.” In their commentary, the authors suggest four areas of risk research to deal with this potential threat. These include looking “for changes in a synthetic organism's production of toxic substances or other harmful metabolites;” considering “how such microbes might alter habitats, food webs or biodiversity;” finding the “the rate at which the synthetic organism and its genetic material evolves so as to determine whether the organism could persist, spread or alter its behaviour in natural environments;”  and determining whether such organisms can “pass on properties such as antibiotic resistance, which could pose threats to human health.”

Reflecting on the current research on synthetic biology, Matthias Kaiser raises some fundamental questions on the anxiety over potential value conflicts anticipated in the area of new technologies. In his commentary in the current issue of the Public Understanding of Science, he asks what the purpose of public engagement on new technologies such as synthetic biology is, whose interests are served by such engagements, and whether we need new frameworks to facilitate public engagement.

There’s surely more to come on this topic ….

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