By Rachel Burnett, EDUCATION AND PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT OFFICER
As part of Biology Week 2015, the Biochemical Society and the Royal Society of Biology organized a debate entitled Synthetic Life: How far could it go? How far should it go?
The lecture theatre at the Royal Institution was at capacity, as Chair Dr Adam Rutherford introduced synthetic biology to the audience. A science that “defies definition”; it could be explained as “new techniques to modify DNA, with useful purposes”.
The panel looked at three different applications of synthetic biology; food production and security, waste management and medicine. They also discussed the ethics of synthetic biology, and how upstream debate could accelerate the progression of this science.
To begin, Professor Robert Edwards (Newcastle University), presented the role of synthetic biology in food production and security and asked the audience “would you eat animal or plant derived food, with scientifically evidenced unique health benefits, which have been prepared by clearly labelled processes that involve synthetic biology?” 95% of the audience said yes, much to our panels’ surprise.
Dr Louise Horsfall (University of Edinburgh) discussed the application of synthetic biology in waste management, particularly plastic waste in the ocean. She divided opinion, asking “should we engineer microorganisms for use in our oceans, which can degrade man-made plastic waste?”
An engaging series of “what if’s” from Professor Paul Freemont (Imperial College London) highlighted the endless possibilities of synthetic biology in medicine. After bravely stating that the limits of synthetic biology are not technical, but societal, he asked the audience “would you be happy to have your genome edited, to ensure the genetic wellbeing of your children?” This controversial question caused debate on twitter, as well as in the lecture theatre:
Tying in the three topics discussed previously, Dr Susan Molyneux-Hodgson (University of Sheffield) looked at the ethical discussions and considerations around synthetic biology. “Should we focus on the scientific process of synthetic biology, or the products?”
The audience had an opportunity to question the panel. Some of the fascinating questions included:
“What happens when synthetic biology meets the private sector?”
Edwards said that he was of the opinion that the close relationship between
genetic modification technology and large corporations such as Monsanto had helped to derail the GM crops debate. However, the panel seemed confident this will not happen with synthetic biology, as key players in the field are actively encouraging small and medium sized enterprizes to follow good practice and keep the public well informed. The speakers admitted that encouraging openness was more of a challenge with big corporations, however.
“Which topic out of the three discussed tonight should receive the most funding?”
Edwards suggested that to decide this we would need to work out which technology would benefit us the most over the next 5-10 years. Freemont was more decisive, putting funding towards foundational technology.
“Shouldn’t we respect people’s expertise and take advice from the experts, instead of putting science out for debate?”
This question prompted a round of applause from the audience until Rutherford reminded us that the public pay for scientific research, so it’s important that we know about it. He asked if we would like to decide which way synthetic biology goes, but the response was a murmur from the audience!
We would like to thank our panel for their fascinating presentations and lively debate, and Dr Adam Rutherford for his expert chairing. We would also like to thank the audience for taking part in this event, and the Royal Institution for hosting.