Published online 12 May 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.464


Synthetic biology gets ethical

UK centre hopes to blend science, policy and outreach in burgeoning field.

ImperialThe new synthetic biology centre at Imperial College London will focus on ethics as well as science.ICL

A synthetic-biology centre opening today at Imperial College London is hoping to pre-empt public concerns about the field by integrating social scientists into its research team.

The Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation is the first publicly-funded UK centre dedicated to synthetic biology – the science of designing and building biological components that can perform useful functions, such as producing drugs or biofuels. The Engineering and Physical Science Research Council is providing £8 million (US$11 million) in funding for the centre over the next 5 years.

One of the centre's senior staff is sociologist Nikolas Rose, director of the BIOS Research Centre for the study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and Society at the London School of Economics. Rose says he aims to make public engagement a key priority for the centre, to avoid a repeat of the public outcry that genetically engineered foods provoked across Europe. "The usual position of the social scientists it to be right downstream, this is a rare opportunity to work right at the beginning," says Rose.

Rose's team will train graduate students and staff to consider the social and ethical implications of their research. He says the centre will also work with government and industry to develop a suitable framework to regulate the products of synthetic biology, and to make intellectual-property claims.

"If the Imperial centre works, it's going to be setting the standard for this," says Pam Silver, a synthetic-biology researcher at Harvard University. Silver is in the process of setting up a synthetic-biology centre at Harvard University, but "so far there's been no real discussion of social scientists' role", she says.

The need for researchers to consider the societal and ethical dimensions of their work in synthetic biology was a key recommendation of a report published by the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering on 6 May. Richard Kitney, a bioengineer at Imperial, who chaired the working group behind the report, is co-director of the new centre, along with Paul Freemont, from Imperial's molecular biosciences division.

A positive step

Biologists and engineers are often reluctant to delve deeply into the social implications of their work, says Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist who heads the social-science effort at a similar effort in the United States: the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), a consortium of universities and industries based at the University of California, Berkeley.

That makes Imperial's effort a positive step, he says. In Rabinow's experience, biologists want help in avoiding public opprobrium, but not at the expense of their own research. "What they want is minimum regulation, and massaging of public opinion," he says. "But they don't want to change how they train young people."

The UK centre will also create a database of engineered biological components, similar to the Registry of Standard Biological Parts held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, which was spawned from the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition for students. "That's very much seen now as a student registry of parts for the competition. I think everybody realises now that it is very important to take this up to the next level, to the professional-engineering level," says Kitney.

Silver welcomes the Imperial repository, but points out that the MIT registry is widely used by researchers and is not just for students.

Jörg Stelling, a computational biologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, says that having multiple repositories is "not very helpful". "The essential thing about synthetic biology is standardization," he says. Stelling would like to see a worldwide, collaborative effort to make a single registry, which could be replicated at many different research centres, something that is not happening at the moment. 

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