June 6, 2012

Mapping the Synthetic Biology Field: An International Overview

A scholarly survey of the emerging field of synthetic biology has been published by a team of researchers from the UK and Japan, and published in the open-access journal, PLOS One. This is a timely overview of this field, international in scope. The authors detail the language problems that can attach to new fields, where different practitioners or commenters use disparate terms to describe this work. For example, synthetic biology is a field that combines engineering with biology, but in this respect, it overlaps with the established field of genetic engineering, which has been around now since the 1970’s. So what accounts for the difference? Some of it is in the ambition of the field, where declarations of the goal to create entirely new organisms are routine; in contrast, genetic engineering usually relies on genetic manipulation of existing organisms (microbes, plants) to add useful phenotypes. Synthetic biology is also associated with the imperative to unravel biological mechanisms with the goal of establishing a catalogue of modular “parts” that can be used to design new biological circuits and new organisms (see, e.g., the Biobricks initiative which does just that). For legal purposes, this article locates the field against the backdrop of relevant international instruments which have bearing on this field (the Convention on Biological Diversity, relating to equitable sharing of genetic resources) and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (relating to guidelines for the use and transport of living modified organisms). With respect to the U.S., the most authoritative consideration of the legal issues raised by synthetic biology was undertaken by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (PCBSI), which published its 2010 study of synthetic biology and issued recommendations for continuing vigilance (noting serious issues of risk assessment and management that could attend the design and release of novel organisms), but no calls for either a moratorium or specific regulation at that time (in fact, noting categorizing its approach as “regulatory parsimony”). More generally, the PCBSI defined a framework for “five ethical principles relevant to considering the social implications of emerging technologies: (1) public beneficence, (2) responsible stewardship, (3) intellectual freedom and responsibility, (4) democratic deliberation, and (5) justice and fairness.” What’s also interesting is a follow-on effort started this year by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to track how the recommendations of the PCBSI are implemented. For example, their Synthetic Biology Project scorecard documents no federal activity pursuant to various recommendations relating to risk assessment, where there was federal activity related to ethics and public education. In sum, this new scholarly work on synthetic biology is a necessary prerequisite to any serious international oversight of the field, in that such an effort must be rooted in empirical knowledge of the scope of the field and its practitioners.

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