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Synthetic biology -- opportunities and risks

The new research field of synthetic biology will, in the medium term, open up a great deal of potential for combining novel genetic methods with engineering principles. This will facilitate the development, not only of new vaccines and medicines, but also of fuels and new materials. Early-stage dialogue with the public on the natural science, legal, economic and ethical issues is crucial for the success and acceptance of this new technology. With a joint position paper on the opportunities and risks posed by synthetic biology, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation), acatech (the German Academy of Science and Engineering), and the German Academy of Scientists Leopoldina, the National Academy of Sciences, now want to initiate this dialogue.

The new statement was presented today by the Presidents of the three organisations, Professors Matthias Kleiner (DFG), Reinhard Httl (acatech) and Volker ter Meulen (Leopoldina), at a press conference in Berlin.

In four chapters totalling 40 pages, the research policy paper takes a stance on selected research fields, current challenges, and the safety and ethical issues raised by the forward-looking research field of synthetic biology.

In synthetic biology, two research approaches predominate: on the one hand, inanimate substances are used to construct "the building blocks of life". These are then combined to form a living organism. On the other, researchers attempt to remove components from natural organisms and replace them with others in order to create artificial life forms. These methods are based on the advances in gene technology, in particular the technical feasibility of increasingly rapidly decoding genetic information and re-synthesising it. In the medium term, the potential applications of synthetic biology range from medicine and environmental technology right through to biotechnology.

A group of experts led by Berlin-based microbiologist Professor Brbel Friedrich, a member of the DFG Senate Commission on Genetic Research and Vice President of the Leopoldina, developed the joint statement based on the findings of an international and interdisciplinary workshop held in Berlin on 27 February. The workshop brought together scientists and academics from the fields of biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, microbiology, virology, chemistry, physics and the engineering sciences, as well as from the humanities and social sciences.

The statement was subsequently passed by the Executive Committees of the three organisations and defines five spheres of activity to outline how Germany can best profit from the potential offered by synthetic biology. These five spheres of activity are:

  • the strengthening of basic research
  • the bundling of relevant disciplines in research and education
  • the development of patenting processes
  • the elimination of threats and the prevention of misuse
  • the monitoring of this new research field using technology assessment methods

For the foreseeable future, the focus of synthetic biology will, in the opinion of the three organisations, lie in basic research. The paper comes to the conclusion that the success of synthetic biology will depend substantially on the extent to which it is able to bring together the wide variety of disciplines as early as the student training stage. Safety-relevant aspects are also addressed, with the paper concluding that, according to the current state of research, the existing laws aimed at ensuring biological safety (biosafety) and at eliminating potential misuse (biosecurity) are sufficient. Despite this, a continuous discussion on safety-relevant issues is considered necessary. This should, in the authors' opinion, be assigned to the Central Commission for Biological Safety (ZKBS).

The "Synthetic Biology" statement is directed particularly at politicians and interested members of the public.


Contact: Dr. Eva-Maria Streier
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

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