We need to prepare for a world where synthetic biology will reshape our lives, economies and environment. But this rapidly emerging technology needs to be responsibly developed, says Professor Philip Shapira, ahead of an exciting event in Manchester next week.
Synthetic biology involves combining scientific and engineering methods to redesign biological components and systems found in the natural world or making new ones from scratch. The potential benefits range from low carbon plastics and new biofuels through to rapid vaccine development and novel disease treatments.
But synthetic biology’s ground-breaking prospects are equally accompanied by ethical, risk, equity, sustainability and public concerns.
These issues are being examined through an interdisciplinary cross-campus collaboration at the University of Manchester’s Synthetic Biology Research Centre for Fine and Speciality Chemicals (SYNBIOCHEM). The Centre works on the synthetic biology of fine chemicals that promise to be greener and more sustainable than current products and embeds researchers from humanities, social sciences, ethics, and innovation policy disciplines to help facilitate the development of an interdisciplinary, collaborative approach to implementing responsible research and innovation.
The Centre is part of a larger UK network of new synthetic biology centres, each of which is targeting new applications in areas that include agriculture, environmental bioremediation, food security, industrial biotechnology, and medicine.
The scientists and engineers in these centres are expected not only to perform leading-edge research but also to demonstrate the value of the field to funders and to transfer results to industry. There are promising early industrial applications, for example where synthetic biology designs genetically modified yeast strains that are effective in making fragrances and even anti-malaria drugs.
Although the companies making such products may change production methods or existing supply chains, the question is how are they considering broader questions related to ethics, responsibility and public acceptability as they develop these innovations?
Government, business, citizens, universities, and other groups all have a stake in synthetic biology research, but their priorities, concerns and the benefits they might reap are different.
For instance, how does the pursuit of immediate financial and professional returns on investment relate to progress towards the longer-term societal goals on which public funding for synthetic biology is predicated?
It is clear that responsible research and innovation has to happen from the start of research. This involves considering how decisions are being made in research and innovation processes, and how certain future possibilities are made more likely or closed-down through these decisions.
Yet, who is to ensure that synthetic biology is developed in a responsible fashion? What changes are needed in industry, regulation, and policy? Most fundamentally, what is responsible research and innovation in synthetic biology – and what can be learned from experiences in other emerging technologies?
These are precisely the issues that we will be examining and discussing during Manchester Policy Week which brings together leading thinkers, academics, students and policy influencers to debate and progress key policy issues.
The workshop will feature presenters with expertise in synthetic biology, grassroots innovation, social and ethical concerns in policy, the governance of science and technology, and responsible research and innovation. In addition to presentations, there will be opportunities for questions and discussion and for participant feedback.
- The workshop “Synthetic Biology: Reshaping the Future?” will be held at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology in central Manchester from 1-4pm on Wednesday 4 November. The workshop is free, but registration is required. Click here for further information and to book your spot.