Foresight Action Network’s Spring meeting on the Future Environmental Applications and Implications of Synthetic Biology was hosted by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and sponsored by the Natural Environment Research Council. Synthetic biology aims to design and build new biological parts and systems, or to modify existing ones, to carry out novel tasks. According to the Government Office for Science, “synthetic biology has the potential to drive industry, research and employment in the life sciences in a way that could rival the development of the computer industry”. It encompasses a range of developing technologies from the redesign of bacteria to the potential creation of new species. It already offers potential for cheaper ways of producing known chemicals and drugs and may evolve further in fields such as food production, energy generation, land and water decontamination, new materials and structures and even information processing.

The Technology Strategy Board has published a UK Roadmap for Synthetic Biology and with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is jointly setting up an Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC) in Synthetic Biology. However, understanding of the potential environmental applications and implications of these emerging technologies is less advanced, but to ensure the successful development of this new field, it will be necessary to be aware of the risks and devise possible biosafety strategies. This workshop was an opportunity to explore and develop a better understanding of where these technologies may be used to the benefit of the environment, and also where there might be negative impacts and identify where further research is needed to protect the environment from identifiable risks.

Powerpoint presentations given at the workshop are available below.

Summary of key points arising from workshop:

  • Synthetic biology (SB) promises a range of new technologies over the next decade which will have wide potential applications across the UK (and global) economy. Much of the detail is as yet unknown and the environmental aspects of these will need close attention.
  • Continuing collaboration between the different groups which have an interest in SB will be essential to support (i) the research base which is developing, utilising and understanding the consequences of SB technologies, (ii) those regulating and enabling the use of SB and (iii) wider beneficiaries.
  • There is a need for broader dialogue around SB to reflect wider perspectives and to include other disciplines, not just synthetic biologists, for more effective risk assessment and product development, and to ensure SB meets actual needs
  • NERC will need to reflect on the issues raised at the workshop, in particular (i) how to build on its existing relationships and where to develop new ones (ii)what roles might be most appropriate for NERC to play in the SB field eg leadership, enabling, information provider, (iii) the implications for training, funding and support “