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Research Needed to Study Ecological Effects of Synthetic Biology Applications, Report Urges

This article has been updated with comments from an official with the Wilson Center.

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – As new synthetic biology technologies come online and as more commercial applications for them move toward the market, more research is needed in several specific areas to investigate the ecological impacts these engineered organisms may have on the environment, according to a new report.

There are many applications for synthetic organisms, including bio-mining, bioremediation, nitrogen fixation, crops for public consumption, using gene drives to address invasive species, and others, and the global synthetic biology market is expected to grow to more than $16 billion by 2018.

The report, "Creating a Research Agenda for the Ecological Implications of Synthetic Biology," is an effort to prepare science funders for the kinds of studies that will be needed to assess the impact of many of these products as they are released into the environment.

The report from the Wilson Center's Synthetic Biology Project and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Program on Emerging Technologies was funded by the National Science Foundation, and is the product of two workshops that brought together a multidisciplinary group of scientists. The report's authors distilled those discussions and identified several priority research areas that they advised government agencies, academia, and industry should support.

"We hope this report raises awareness about the lack of research into these ecological issues," James Collins, a professor of natural history and environment at Arizona State University and former director of the Population Biology and Physiological Ecology Program and assistant director of Biological Sciences at NSF, said in a statement issued by the Wilson Center. "We involved experts in the ecological research and synthetic biology communities to help identify priority research areas – and we believe the report can be a roadmap to guide the necessary work. The rapid pace of research and commercialization in the field of synthetic biology makes it important to begin this work now."

There is very little ongoing research into the impacts of synthetic biology, and this report can guide NSF as it weighs where it plans to invest some of its synthetic biology-related funding, Todd Kuiken, senior program associate at the Wilson Center's Science and Technology Innovation Program, told GenomeWeb Daily News on Thursday.

He said there is a general lack of knowledge about the interactions synthetic organisms have with other organisms in their ecosystem and uncertainties surrounding the potential evolutionary echoes of those interactions.

"How do you actually measure that? How do you interpret that information to decide if there is a harm or not for the ecosystem, for human health?," he said.
Another problem that will need to be addressed is just where this kind of research will happen, Kuiken said.

"How do you go from a lab experiment to a small microcosm to a larger mesocosm? What is really needed to do these types of ecological studies is an actual ecosystem where you have all of those natural interactions going on that you can measure … not only in real time but also over time," he said. This presents a real problem that is somewhat unique for synthetic biology because it involves "living things that are growing, evolving, moving."

One problem the group identified is that it is increasingly difficult to compare a modified organism to its wild-type "parent," so there is a need for research to find new reference models for assessing and evaluating organisms that may have not other present-day analogues, the authors suggested.

Similarly, as there may be an increasing mix of traits within an organism that have been modified, there also is a need to better identify and prioritize the traits that may cause concerns about their ecological impacts, the authors said. They suggested that when ecological interactions are evaluated, more should be done to better understand which phenotypes are the most relevant to consequences over the short and long terms, and a greater emphasis should be placed on understanding how a trait functions, instead of fixating on the origin of its DNA.

Because novel organisms and traits will be introduced into the environment, research also is needed into genetic fitness and stability, or the propensity of a gene or genetic material to travel across generations, and gene transfer, or the likelihood that a trait will be able to transfer between unrelated species, according to the report.

Since the goal of a gene drive is to intentionally move a gene through organisms and through a system to make it proliferate, Kuiken explained, it is really important to know how it will interact with the ecosystem. This is particularly important for a gene drive that is intended to drive down a population.

"There really isn’t much data or many studies out there on what would happen, say, if you want to remove the Asian carp in the deltas that go up into the Great Lakes," he said. "They are well established in those systems now, and they are part of that ecosystem. So, while they are extremely detrimental, what happens when you remove that now from an ecosystem where in essence it has been established?"

Before synthetic or modified organisms are deployed, its application should be examined for what level and type of internal or external protective controls will be required when it is released, and to account for its accidental release, the authors advised.

They also said that funding should be provided for more research focused on monitoring and surveillance and that different modeling methods and tools should be developed to gauge the impact of synthetic applications. They also said that standardized testing methodologies and reporting procedures will be essential for data collection and subsequent integration. They noted that the synthetic bio industry has begun this process through the Synthetic Biology Open Language open-source data exchange, but "[s]upport should be provided for its continued elaboration."

The report from the Wilson Center and MIT comes a day after a report was released detailing the regulatory challenges facing US authorities in overseeing the synthetic biology field.

Kuiken said the US regulatory framework described in yesterday's report is probably what will be in effect for the foreseeable future. He thinks there may not be a need to find new ways to regulate this field, but to find out what kinds of synthetic biology applications require regulation.

"What this research agenda can do is begin to get you the data and the information to really truly evaluate these [applications and products] through the governance structure that is already in place. The regulatory structure is already there," he said. "The problem I see is that there really is no data and no studies out there … to plug into that regulatory structure. "