Published online 27 July 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.723

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Germany outlines synthetic biology strategy

Scientific opportunities must be balanced with ethical debate, says report.

DFGThe DFG has weighed in on the future of synthetic biology in Germany.Wikimedia Commons

Three leading German research organizations have outlined how they believe the country could play a major role in synthetic biology, while recommending that the country debate the ethics of the science.

Synthetic biology involves designing and building biological components to perform functions such as producing drugs or fuels. Some analysts estimate that the market for such products could soon be worth a billion dollars a year.

The new report on Germany's role in the field comes from the German Research Foundation (DFG), which funds university research; the Leopoldina, Germany's national academy of science; and the German Academy of Science and Engineering. It argues that synthetic biology has enormous potential value to society, but also carries a small risk of misuse, for example in creating biological weapons.

“Our German tendency to reflect on nature and the origin of life goes back to the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century.”

Jörg Hacker
Robert Koch Institute

The report says that Germany's strong chemical and engineering industries and its historic strength in microbiology could allow it to exploit the coming boom in the highly interdisciplinary science. It recommends that a national centre should be established to host a database of information about all newly-created stretches of DNA. The centre would also conduct a safety assessment of the sequences, based on whether it was known to create dangerous proteins, for example.

Pause for thought

Many countries have discussed the scientific potential and ethics of synthetic biology, says microbiologist Jörg Hacker, former DFG vice-president and an initiator of the report (see Synthetic biology gets ethical). "But Germans are particularly sensitive to issues in the life sciences because of our history," he says, referring both to Nazi abuse of bioscience in the twentieth century, and a longer tradition of philosophy about mankind's place in nature.

German scientists are already involved in national and European synthetic biology research programmes and businesses. But so far the German public — who halted the use of genetically modified crops in the country, and limited the use of human embryonic stem cells in research — has given the discipline little attention.

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Hacker, now president of the Berlin-based Robert Koch Institute, says that one motivation of the report is to involve the public in ethical debate about synthetic biology early on.

In Germany, such debates can be drawn-out affairs. The debate on the use of human embryonic stem cells in research stretched over several years before a restrictive law, since slightly relaxed, was passed in 2002.

"Our German tendency to reflect on nature and the origin of life goes back to the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century," says Hacker. "And why not reflect a bit?"

Politicians often lament Germany's failure to reap the benefits of genetic engineering, because of public resistance, when the technologies matured in the 1980s and 1990s. Ralf Wagner, head of Geneart in Regensburg, the world's largest manufacturer of synthetic genes, hopes that the launch of the report will be an opportunity to create a positive environment that might stop the country losing out this time round. "It is important that any emerging debate is suitably balanced so that the benefits of synthetic biology are stressed," he says. 

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  • #60592

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