Saints or synners?

Policy, public perceptions, and the opportunities and challenges of synthetic biology

Synthetic biology—a supreme expression of scientific hubris, or the solution to all our problems?

Like everything in life, I suspect that the answer to the question is far from black and white.  Yet what is clear is that this emerging science and technology that merges evolutionary biology with systematic engineering raises many exciting new possibilities, together with a heap of complex social, ethical and even religious questions.

Striking the right balance between these opportunities and challenges will require people working together in new and innovative ways—especially those involved in researching, developing, using and overseeing synbio.  If the emerging technology is to reach its potential, some tough decisions are going to have to be made at some point on what is developed, how it is used, and how it is regulated.  And the more these decisions are based on sound science and informed thinking, the better.

This is the challenge a new initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has set its sights on.  The just-launched Project on Synthetic Biology aims to foster informed public and policy discourse concerning the advancement of the field, working in collaboration with researchers, governments, industries, non-government organizations and others.  Supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the project will draw on experience gained in addressing science and technology policy issues by the Project on Emerging Technologies—so you can expect to see some familiar faces here ☺

Rather than write a tedious infomercial for the new project, I would suggest instead that you check out the snazzy new website at  Having said that, there are three things worth highlighting:

1.  Trends in American and European Press Coverage of Synthetic Biology.  Tracking the last five years of coverage.

The launch of the new project coincides with the publication of a new report on US and European Press coverage of synthetic biology, by Eleonore Pauwels and Ioan Ifirm.

The data-rich report notes that in the short term, public awareness and understanding of synthetic biology will be influenced by press coverage, and especially how the field is framed in the media.  In an area of growing press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, the analysis shows small but relevant differences between American and European coverage.  The European press has typically focused more on addressing risks and benefits together, and highlighted benefits in the areas of health and energy.  In contrast, US coverage shows a bias towards covering benefits over risks and benefits combined, with an emphasis on energy and environmental applications.

The report authors recommend further assessing public perceptions to synthetic biology, promoting a transatlantic perspective on potential risks, and engaging citizens in the development of synbio.  Read the full report here.

2.  Synthetic Biology on the Nanofrontier?

This is a new audio podcast of a conversation between science reporter Karen Schmidt, and synthetic biology pioneer Jay Keasling.  Keasling is well known for his work on a new synthetic biology-based route to producing artemisinin—an anti-malarial drug—and  the use of a similar synthesis route to producing a new generation of biofuels.  This is a great podcast—perfect for the morning commute—and can be downloaded here.

3.  Your chance to win… small!

And finally, but definitely most importantly, the launch of the new project is being celebrated by a not-too-taxing quiz on synthetic biology.  Get the answers write (or keep on trying until you do), and you get the chance to win an iPod nano—perfect for listening to the Jay Keasling podcast on!  [Access the quiz here]

Synthetic biology is emerging at an interesting time for any new technology; where global challenges are crying out for new technological fixes, but hurdles to safe and successful development are constantly changing.  The new project aims to steer a path through this complex landscape, and help ensure synthetic biology is developed on sound science and informed decision-making.

So that rather than ending up with a bunch of synbio synners, we get the synthetic biology saints the world deserves.

(And I must apologize for such an ugly pun!  I blame overwork and not enough alcohol)

UPDATE, Dec 19:

The Alfred P Sloan Foundation has just announced a new $1.6 million synthetic biology initiative, that includes projects at the Hastings Center and the J. Craig Venter Institute, as well as the Wilson Center.

The new effort effort brings together leading scientists, ethicists and public policy specialists to explore the field’s potential benefits and risks, as well as ethical questions and regulatory issues.

From the release:

At the Hastings Center (, Foundation funding will allow for in-depth investigation into ethical issues that may arise in connection with developments in synthetic biology. The project aims to make serious contributions to scholarly literature, produce a base for further scholarship, and inform public policymaking.

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funding will allow the J. Craig Venter Institute ( to examine potential societal concerns associated with developments in synthetic genomics. The project will both inform the scientific community about these issues while also educating the policy and journalistic communities about the science. As a result, scientists, journalists and policymakers will be able to engage in informed discussions.

A grant to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars ( will analyze evolving public perceptions of potential societal risks that may arise related to research in and applications of synthetic biology, clarify whether our existing regulatory systems can address relevant risks that may be associated with the science, and inform and educate policymakers.


Related posts:

Intrigued by synthetic biology?  These previous blog posts might be of interest:

Synthetic biology: Lessons from synthetic chemistry

Synthetic Biology 4.0—changing the way science is done

Small particles are sexy; Synthetic biologists are sexier!

Synthetic biology and the public: Time for a heart to heart?

Synthetic biology, ethics and the hacker culture

Synthetic biology and nanotechnology

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