SYNENERGENE is a four-years mobilization and mutual learning action plan (MMLAP) supported by the European Commission under the 7th Framework Programme. The project aims at initiating and fostering public dialogue on synthetic biology and mutual learning processes among a wide variety of stakeholders from science, industry, civil society, education, art and other fields.
Recent activities show that synthetic biology is hot, both in terms of technological development and governance issues. In recent months we've seen -just to mention a few- publications on the results of the use of 'gene circuits' in plants, a report linking synbio research to fossil fuel extraction, scientists annoucing their plans to use gene drive technology to combat malaria, and a call for a more active approach towards standardi-zation efforts in the European Union. Meanwhile, a number of iGEM teams assisted by the SYNENERGENE team included scenarios in the projects they presented at the annual iGEM jamboree in Boston. In this extra long edition of our Newsletter we want to share some reflections on these and other recent events and their significance in terms of Responsible Research and Innovation.
Huib de Vriend, editor
Standards for Synthetic Biology: the technical challenge and the power game
Standards are traditionally claimed to be one of the pillars of modern Engineering and as such they are also vindicated as one of the core tenets of contemporary Synthetic Biology. Standar-dization of physical assembly of DNA-encoded genetic parts was one of the first issues that the early pioneers of Synthetic Biology at MIT pointed as critical for the development of the field. This is still today one of the principles of the iGEM and its associated repository of biological parts. But soon after the issue was raised more than a decade ago, an avalanche of criticism followed: regardless of how one standardizes physical composition, the result is not a predictable functional outcome, as biological activities delivered by given DNA segments are context-dependent in practically all cases. Should we then give up robust design of biological systems with new-to-nature properties?
Widening the scope - Experiences from our 2015 iGEM collaboration
The mutual learning activities between iGEM and SYNENERGENE were continued this year, as we again called the iGEM teams to reflect on the societal ramifications of their projects by creating two types of scenarios. The eight teams that we supported prepared their scenarios with the help of guidelines and personal assistance from SYNENERGENE partners in Bergen and Delft. Our work culminated in the iGEM’s Giant Jamboree in Boston, where the teams held workshop discussions about central issues and dilemmas from their scenarios. Many teams also held events on their own, such as science cafes and public debates.
In Mid-September, a public dialogue event initiated and organised by a SYNENERGENE mini consortium took place in Karlsruhe. By putting it into the wider context of the history of technology, the moderator introduced synthetic biology as an ambivalent innovation. In the same vein, and based on interviews with citizens, the short introductory trailer documented that laypeople are highly ambivalent about the benefits and the ethical challenges raised by synthetic biology. Maybe synthetic biology really represents a promising research field – but are there any useful applications at all to be expected in the near future?
Creating Responsible Bioeconomies –Plans for a Series of Events
Synthetic biology is already being used in the processing of biomass to produce industrial goods such as biofuels, commodities for the chemical industry and ingredients for consumer goods. This is why SYNENERGENE is exploring the connection between synthetic biology as a technology and the bioeconomy as an overarching concept, which focuses precisely on such procedures.
Late November 2015, a group of scientists from the University of California announced their plans in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to use gene drive technology to engineer a whole population of the mosquito that normally carry the malaria parasite. They claim that strains based on this technology could sustain control and elimination as part of the malaria eradication agenda. The debate about the governance of this technology and fears about uncontrolled spread of potentially harmful genetis traits in wild populations has already started.
Well planned, a week before the climate summit in Paris the ETC group and the Heinrich Böll Foundation released a new report titled “Extreme Biotech meets Extreme Energy”. The report describes how Synthetic Biology industries are now actively tying their future to the very oil, coal and gas extraction and predicts that as these industries move towards deeper collaboration, the biosafety risks and climate threats emanating from them will become ever more entangled.
A range of new plant breeding technologies has been developed in recent years. Colorado State University scientists have created an integrated circuit for plants that are similar to those found in an iPhone. 'Gene circuits,' a product of synthetic biology, control specific plant characteristics such as color, size, and resistance to drought. While traditional plant genetic engineering involves inserting or modifying genes that control certain characteristics, plant synthetic biologists are taking a different approach by quantitatively analyzing gene parts to make predictable functions. This new method is published in Nature Methods Nov. 16.
Biofaction in Vienna produced a short film about Standardisation processes in Synthetic Biology. The film shows 1) why standards are so important in synthetic biology, 2) what should be standardized, 3) who are the people driving this process, and 4) what this all means for society and the environment.
EMBO reports: Responsibility and intellectual property in synthetic biology
As part of their collaboration with SYNENERGENE, the iGEM 2014 team of Valencia Biocampus worked on questions of intelectual property in synthetic biology. In an extension of this collaboration, a proposal for using Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) as a basic framework for intellectual property (IP) decisions and the development of IP schemes in synthetic biology has been put forward in EMBO reports, online (August 12, 2015). In particular, the authors strived to elucidate whether IP schemes and the RRI concept could be mutually beneficial to foster innovations in synthetic biology, which may be required to provide solutions to the grand societal challenges.