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UK Workshops on Synthetic Biology Reveal Fascination, Worries

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The emerging field of synthetic biology offers "tremendous opportunity," such as the potential for treating diseases, improving crops, making new fuels, and cleaning up the environment, but the public also sees a variety of potential problems that could arise from the technology, according to a new public and stakeholder survey released today by a UK science funding group.

In a series of workshops, UK citizens showed conditional support for synthetic biology, but also viewed it as a new scientific field with extreme potentials for innovation and unexpected hazards, and as one that should be pursued with strong regulations.

Newly created synthetic organisms released into the environment may grow out of control, or powerful technologies could "fall into the wrong hands," worried the group of 160 workshop participants who were recruited by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), both UK science funding agencies, according to the survey.

The report from the Synthetic Biology Public Dialogue program also uncovered public concern about the potential health and environmental impacts of synthetic biology creations, a suspicion that the new technologies will benefit and profit some select few people but not most, and a vague sense that the field simply may be progressing too quickly.

Stakeholders involved in synthetic biology, including representatives from business, science, government, and consumer and religious organizations, had wide-ranging opinions about the science.

The stakeholders roughly agreed that synthetic biology is a field that requires regulation, but few of them suggested specific changes to the practices already in place. They also generally thought that science and technology inevitably will outpace regulators and should require greater scrutiny.

"Synthetic biology is one of many promising areas of modern biology in which research has the potential for massive economic and social benefits," BBSRC CEO Douglas Kell said in a statement Monday discussing the report and the reasoning behind it.

"However, we must and shall not lose sight of the wider implications of our science, including in potentially controversial areas such as synthetic biology. Talking to the public about their hopes, concerns and aspirations gives us an opportunity to ensure that our science strategies do not diverge from what society thinks," he added.

"We recognize the need to understand fully the public's views and attitudes on synthetic biology in order to reflect these in our strategies and policies," EPSRC CEO Dave Delpy added. "We see the need for our researchers to show responsibility for the societal implications of their work and engage with this debate."

One specific area of concern for most of the public participants in the workshop had to do with the motivations of scientists. The themes of their concerns about motivations could be distilled down to five simple questions: What is the purpose? Why are you doing it? What are you going to gain? What else will it do? How do you know you are right?

According to the report, the workshops with the public found that they have "a great deal of fascination about this area," that using engineering principles in biology is "amazing or unimaginable," and that they find its potential "exciting and scary."

"I think it is very interesting that they are trying to do things like producing bio fuel from algae and things like that, I think that is really interesting in that respect, it's just the other side that scares the hell out of me, what they can produce and what the hell can be done with it," one female respondent aged between 18 and 34 explained in a workshop.

The workshop participants also expressed hope that synthetic biology could be harnessed to address some of the largest issues of our time, such as global warming, diseases, energy supplies, and food security.

According to the report, the public workshops proved people to be astonished at the scale of the scientists' ambition and imagination, and at the prospect of some of their goals being achievable. They said that they hoped synthetic biology can help revolutionize drug development, and can be used to find treatments for AIDS, cancer, and other terminal diseases.

Economic aims also stirred the public. They hoped that science could be used to promote business and to enhance Britain's economic competitiveness.

Along with these aspirations, the public expressed a desire to know more about the research, and hoped that it will be conducted in an open and transparent manner that would enable it to be regulated effectively.

The workshops also heard "significant concerns," according to the report, which cited "the very scope and ambition of the field [as] a major cause of concern for people."

There were concerns about the speed of development, although the long-term impacts may not be known, and there were particular ethical concerns about "the use of synthetic biology in sentient creatures, or that it could be used in some way for human enhancement or to design complex organisms from scratch."

The workshops found that some people are concerned about "transgressing nature," that some scientists are just "playing with things," and that synthetic biology "goes against nature."

What drove such concerns, in part, was worry over the potential unintended consequences that could come about by changing complex natural systems.

"There were significant concerns around the uncontrolled release of synthetic organisms into the environment — and their ability to evolve and change also heightened this sense of unpredictability," the report noted.

The public groups also suggested that scientists should consider the wider implications of their work from the conception of the research, and that there should be more focus on the public interest.

These participants wanted support for scientists that would enable them to understand the general social, as well as medical and environmental, impacts of their research. They suggested more collaboration with the social sciences, more openness about early research findings, and more focus on open-source approaches that would enable a wider range of people involved in thinking about the path of the research.

On regulation in general, the participants felt that mistakes will inevitably happen in science, and that all risks cannot be controlled and that some risks are unknown.

"Overall, this does not mean that we should not move ahead with the science, but rather we should proceed with caution and learn from past mistakes," the report concluded in its analysis of the public workshops.

In the sessions with 41 stakeholders there was less emphasis on the broad ethical questions, particularly among those in science and engineering and industry, who were resistant to speak about synthetic biology in relation to the creation of life and "playing God."

"In a research lab the view of life tends to be mechanistic, rather than emotional or ideological," one scientist/engineer observed.

"I would need to understand why somebody thought this is a problem. We have always been creating life; we do it all the time. Getting bacteria to multiply in the lab, that is creating life," a scientist explained.

The stakeholder cohort lacked consensus about the state of regulations for synthetic biology.

Regulators said that the existing regulations were good enough for the current situation, but that they would have to be updated.

Some researchers supported "bottom-up" regulations that are led by the experiences and needs of practitioners, but the public workshops rejected the idea as insufficient.

According to the report, the respondents believe that it is important from a public perspective to have more independent regulation and to build trust and ensure that scientists will not work with tunnel vision and will consider the implications of what they do.

The findings in the report will now be considered by societal issues advisory panels at BBSRC and EPSRC, and the two research councils have planned a meeting between their management and the chairs of the workshops to discuss the report. The advisory panels then will include the findings in the councils' strategic planning processes.

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