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Guidelines for the Appropriate Risk Governance of Synthetic Biology

Policy brief for the International Risk Governance Council

Lowrie, H   Tait, J

January 2010

International Risk Governance Council (IRGC), Geneva

Open / download PDF, 9MB

Synthetic biology is a new scientific discipline emerging from the convergence of biotechnology, genetics and advances in the systems-scale fundamental understanding of living organisms, along with aspects of physics, chemistry and computer science. It is predicated on an engineering approach to biology: an understanding of the mechanisms by which living cells function, coupled to the availability of tools for intervening in and altering these functions at the genetic level – or even for rebuilding some biological entities and processes from scratch using chemical methods. This is making it possible to ‘design’ life in much the same way as we might design an automobile or an electronic circuit. Instead of relying on haphazard tinkering or small-scale genetic modification to direct living systems towards new objectives, it may become possible to radically alter what cells and organisms can achieve in a rational, systematic way.

This document develops the concept of appropriate risk governance: one that is enabling of innovation, minimises risk to people and the environment, and balances the interests and values of all relevant stakeholders. It provides suggestions for how an appropriate trade-off between these factors might be attained, and argues that regulation must not simply prohibit or restrict any development for which potential risks can be adduced but should seek the right balance between potential social benefits and dangers – even though these may both be uncertain and speculative at this early stage in the field’s evolution.

This policy brief on synthetic biology is part of International Risk Governance Council’s (IRGC) work on the risk governance of innovative technologies.