Research universities are de facto science and technology policy laboratories attempting to reconcile powerful incentives to accelerate R&D commercialization with ethical and democratic commitments to responsible innovation (RI).
Only two microbes are practically available to nonprofit researchers as platforms for genetic modification, a restriction that has profoundly delayed the progress of synthetic biology. A tiny fraction of interesting microbes has genetic toolkits—and though it is possible to build toolkits, current incentive structures in research and biotechnology seem to preclude the involvement of academic scientists or the disclosure of methods or strains by industrial scientists.
We propose identifying how US federal agencies can integrate synthetic biological technologies to enhance biosecurity. Our proposal is motivated by inadequate technical and policy approaches to tackle biological threats (including naturally occurring outbreaks, accidental contaminations and bioreleases, and bioterrorism) that jeopardize public health and national security.
World population is growing by 74 million people per year. We may need to produce as much as 70 percent more food by 2050 without increasing agricultural resources. Bioengineering is not a silver bullet for preventing food scarcity—synthetic biology cannot make the rain come or ensure fair distribution of food, but it can be used to detect and respond to disease outbreaks, reduce the use of agrochemicals, and improve nutritional value.
Consideration of biosafety and compliance with local rules and relevant legislation is a vital aspect of good practice in any laboratory that performs molecular biology. With advances in DNA synthesis and assembly, recombineering, and the widespread adoption of Cas nucleases for genome editing, our ability to programme cellular behaviours is advancing at an unprecedented rate.
RNA-guided gene drives have the power to single-handedly alter shared ecosystems, yet they are accessible to individual researchers. 1 Applications of gene drive 2 and other ecotechnologies could save millions of lives and numerous species, but development, social acceptance, and use pose ethical and practical challenges due to the difficulty of obtaining communal consent.
Rapid advances in the enabling technologies for genome editing are sparking a global dialogue about the potential consequences of these technologies. In particular, concerns exist about the potential biosecurity implications of engineering, previously only within the remit of state-sponsored bodies, becoming available to well-trained individuals and small groups.
The plan for responsible biological innovation sounds simple in theory: design thoughtfully, communicate effectively, listen carefully, and provide tangible benefits to all stakeholders. In practice, however, we have seen this process fail time and time again as companies, consumers, and advocacy groups talk at cross purposes.
Synthetic DNA libraries can be used to rapidly engineer novel biological systems. Unfortunately, many young synthetic biology practitioners don’t know what a synthetic DNA library is or how it can be used. To address this problem, we will ship a synthetic DNA library to every International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team, along with accompanying educational material. My company, LabGenius, will cover the cost of the design and synthesis of the synthetic DNA library. I would like to request $2,500 in LEAP Catalyst grant funding to pay for the design and production of the accompanying educational materials.
A growing community of software developers and designers is becoming increasingly inspired by and eager to get involved in biology. Though participating in the “next digital revolution” is attractive, lateral entrants to the field face a steep learning curve before they can effectively discuss many core concepts of biological engineering with professional synthetic biologists.
Surveying public opinion on GMOs and genetic modification reveals responses like: I don’t know. No clue. Complicated. Health. Improvement. Doubt. Wrong. Food. Scary. A Google image search on the term “synthetic biology” results in textbook charts, dissected bacterium, and gears—society doesn’t seem to be part of the picture.