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Public will fear biological accidents, not just attacks

Sir

As one of the few Europeans who took part in the Synthetic Biology 2.0 conference in California in May, I read your Editorial “Policing ourselves” (Nature 441, 383; 200610.1038/441383a) and News story “Synthetic biologists try to calm fears” (Nature 441, 388–389; 2006) with great interest. The impression I received is that synthetic biologists are trying to alleviate public concerns over their research area — but will have serious difficulty in succeeding.

Most discussions in the field about self-regulation are focused on biosecurity — that is, preventing new opportunities for bioterrorists — in an attempt to act proactively and prevent overly restrictive regulations being imposed by the authorities. But the concerns raised in the open letter from civil organizations including Greenpeace and Genewatch UK deal with the biosafety aspects: in other words, the uncertainties and unintentional consequences of synthetic-biology research, as opposed to its deliberate misuse. Although biosafety concerns were discussed at the conference, they are mainly unaddressed in the self-regulation attempt. Yet they will be increasingly significant as the synthetic-biology field develops, especially in Europe.

Synthetic biology shares many characteristics with other new technologies regarding public perception of novelty, uncertainty and controllability; we are all aware of the controversy in Europe over genetically modified crops. This time, we should be more far-sighted, and proactively address biosafety concerns as well as ethics, and intellectual-property rights as much as biosecurity. The Synthetic Biology 3.0 conference in Zurich next year will be a good opportunity.

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