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Synthetic Biology: funders move to address social and ethical challenges

9 June 2008

The report of an independent review of social and ethical challenges associated with research into, and the application of, synthetic biology, is published today (9 June). The report, commissioned by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s (BBSRC) Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel, is part of its programme to ensure that BBSRC adequately addresses issues raised by this rapidly emerging area of science and technology. Embargoed copies of the report are available upon request (see contact details below).

Synthetic biology seeks to apply the principles of engineering to biological systems and processes. Scientists believe that it may lead to new applications, such as new energy production systems, medical therapies, biological computers and innovative ways to clean up hazardous waste. In common with other modern technologies, it is potentially controversial because it raises issues of ownership, misuse, unintended consequences, and accidental release.

The report, ‘Synthetic Biology: social and ethical challenges’, has been written by Andrew Balmer and Paul Martin of the Institute for Science and Society, University of Nottingham, a leading research centre working on the impact of new technology. It reviews what synthetic biology is, where it has come from, and where it is going, as well as making recommendations to research funders and the scientific community about how social and ethical issues should be addressed. These include:

  • The need for scientists to engage with the public early in the development of synthetic biology to ensure that research does not get ahead of public attitudes
  • Synthetic biology must not be over-hyped by its supporters and critics should not exaggerate the risks it poses
  • Reviewing current regulations and guidelines to ensure that an appropriate governance framework is in place before most synthetic biology applications are introduced

BBSRC, with advice from its Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel, is considering the recommendations of the report and will use its conclusions to inform its future policy in this area.

"Synthetic biology is in the early stages of development in the UK, and it is an appropriate time to address issues of public interest and concern," said Professor Nigel Brown, BBSRC Director of Science and Technology, "BBSRC already requires its grantholders to address ethical and other social issues, but this report will help us to focus on those concerns associated with synthetic biology."

BBSRC is already working with its sister Research Councils on ethical and regulatory issues that might arise from synthetic biology research. BBSRC is working closely with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Royal Society on how to take forward public dialogue and engagement on the science of synthetic biology, and with the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council on wider societal issues.

ENDS

Notes to editors

‘Synthetic Biology: social and ethical challenges’ is an independent report commissioned by the synthetic biology sub-group of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s (BBSRC) Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel. The views and conclusions in the report are those of the authors and not necessarily those of BBSRC.

BBSRC is the UK’s principal public funder of research and training in the non-clinical life sciences. Together with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), BBSRC is the main UK source of public funding for synthetic biology. BBSRC leads the Research Councils’ Networks in Synthetic Biology Initiative.

There is no agreed definition of synthetic biology, but it is best understood as the deliberate design of biological systems and living organisms using engineering principles.

The EU New and Emerging Science and Technology (NEST) programme has defined synthetic biology as the engineering of biology: the synthesis of complex, biologically based, or inspired, systems which display functions that do not exist in nature.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About the Institute for Science and Society

The Institute for Science and Society (ISS) is a major research centre studying the social, legal, ethical and cultural implications of science and technology. ISS works closely with scientific partners, particularly in regenerative medicine, nanotechnology, infection control, public health and veterinary medicine, and has established an international reputation for interdisciplinary research on the ethical, social and legal issues raised by emerging biotechnologies, including stem cells, tissue engineering, pharmacogenomics and genetic testing.

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