Innogen · News · August 28, 2009

Engineered 'life': Will people accept synthetic biology?

In two new publications, Innogen’s Professor Joyce Tait CBE argues that the regulation of synthetic biology needs a drastic rethink.

Synthetic biology hit the headlines this week with an annoucement that scientists have taken a step towards creating a synthetic cell. While new developments in the life sciences have the potential to transform our lives and the economy, a shadow looms: will the public accept them?

In an article for EMBO Reports (Vol 10, Science & Society Special Issue on Systems and Synthetic Biology), Professor Tait explores the legacy of the anti-GM backlash across Europe and the difficulties now faced by governments as they try to promote life science innovation while accommodating a wide range of public-interest groups.

Many of these groups have concerns over the potential environment and health risks of new biotech products. In the case of synthetic biology issues are related to bio-safety, bio-security, trade and global justice, and the morality of creating novel life forms.

These concerns have reinforced demands for more regulation and stricter governance. However, policy makers’ responses to these pressures can have counter-intuitive implications for innovation. Regulatory systems which are increasingly lengthy and onerous ensures that “only major multinationals can play”, and eventually cripple the entire innovation system.

In a chapter on Governing Synthetic Biology: Processes and Outcomes for a forthcoming book on Synthetic Biology (Springer, 2009) Professor Tait outlines the importance of effective regulation to safely capture the potential benefits of synthetic biology.

Comparing synthetic biology with nanotechnology and GM crops provides some insights into the nature and impacts of future pressures on synthetic biology governance and could contribute to better decision making in future.

To take things forward, Professor Tait states that there is a requirement for concerted international dialogue which takes account of the interplay between scientists, medical professionals and engineers, policy makers and regulators, and citizens and advocacy groups of all shades of opinion.