Nav: Home

Commentary in Nature: How do you stop a synthetic-biology disaster?

February 29, 2012

Experts say at least $20 million to $30 million in government research is needed over the next decade to adequately identify and address the possible ecological risks of synthetic biology, an emerging area of research focused on the design and construction of new biological parts and systems, or modification of existing ones, to create new applications in areas ranging from energy to chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Without key research into these risks and appropriate federal oversight, certain synthetic organisms might survive and flourish in natural environments, wreaking havoc on local ecosystems, according to a new Commentary piece in the journal Nature ("Four Steps to Stop a Synthetic-Biology Disaster," March 1).

The article -- written by Genya V. Dana, Todd Kuiken and David Rejeski of the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Allison A. Snow of Ohio State University -- highlights the need to proactively address environmental risks so that the potential benefits of synthetic biology can be realized.

"No one yet understands the risks that synthetic organisms pose to the environment, what kinds of information are needed to support rigorous assessments, or who should collect such data," the authors write.

And while similar questions were raised about genetically modified crops, the products of synthetic biology "will be altered in more sophisticated and fundamental ways (such as elimination of metabolic pathways), making them potentially more difficult to regulate, manage and monitor."

The authors say it is imperative to start the research ahead of expected advancements in the field. "Synthetic biology has already moved out of the lab, propelled by significant public and private investments in organisms modified to produce chemicals, medicines and biofuels," they write. The global market for synthetic biology is expected to increase to $10.8 billion over the next four years.

The authors propose four areas that risk researchers, scientists, regulators and other key stakeholders should focus on in the near term: how the physiology of synthetic organisms is different from naturally occurring organisms; how "escaped" synthetic organisms might affect the environment; how synthetic organisms might evolve in the natural environment; and consequences of synthetic organisms exchanging genetic materials with naturally occurring organisms.

The authors caution that this research will take time, and emphasize that such work should be integrated into the larger synthetic biology research agenda. "Public agencies must link basic and environmental risk research by co-funding projects and requiring grant recipients to work with environmental scientists from the start," the article says.

The Wilson Center has already been encouraging dialogue between synthetic biologists and ecologists on the potential risks of synthetic biology. In July 2011, the Center held a workshop focused on bringing together engineers and ecologists to help identify key research areas needed to support future ecological risk assessments for synthetic biology applications. While this work continues, the authors stress the need for much more interdisciplinary research and discussion.

The call for research funding comes as federal agencies are determining how best to respond to a 2010 report on synthetic biology from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The Wilson Center in February launched a scorecard to track the federal and non-federal response to the commission's recommendations. The scorecard can be found here:
The Nature Commentary can be found here (subscription required):

Synthetic Biology Project

The Synthetic Biology Project is an initiative of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The Project aims to foster informed public and policy discourse concerning the advancement of synthetic biology. For more information, visit:

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is the national, living memorial honoring President Woodrow Wilson. The Wilson Center provides a strictly nonpartisan space for the worlds of policymaking and scholarship to interact. By conducting relevant and timely research and promoting dialogue from all perspectives, it works to address the critical current and emerging challenges confronting the United States and the world. Created by an Act of Congress in 1968, The Wilson Center is a non-partisan institution headquartered in Washington, D.C. and supported by both public and private funds. For more information, visit:

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars/Science and Technology Innovation Program

Related Synthetic Biology Articles:

Synthetic nanochannels for iodide transport
Iodide channels have the potential to treat thyroid diseases and some types of cancers.
Researchers assemble five new synthetic chromosomes
A global research team has built five new synthetic yeast chromosomes, meaning that 30 percent of a key organism's genetic material has now been swapped out for engineered replacements.
New tool can help policymakers prioritize information needs for synthetic biology tech
New technologies are developed at a rapid pace, often reaching the marketplace before policymakers can determine how or whether they should be governed.
Role of protein engineering techniques in synthetic biology
Proteins are the major biochemical workhorses that carry out multitude of physiological functions in an organism.
Synthetic biology used to limit bacterial growth and coordinate drug release
Researchers have engineered a clinically relevant bacterium to produce cancer drugs and then self-destruct and release the drugs at the site of tumors.
More Synthetic Biology News and Synthetic Biology Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#534 Bacteria are Coming for Your OJ
What makes breakfast, breakfast? Well, according to every movie and TV show we've ever seen, a big glass of orange juice is basically required. But our morning grapefruit might be in danger. Why? Citrus greening, a bacteria carried by a bug, has infected 90% of the citrus groves in Florida. It's coming for your OJ. We'll talk with University of Maryland plant virologist Anne Simon about ways to stop the citrus killer, and with science writer and journalist Maryn McKenna about why throwing antibiotics at the problem is probably not the solution. Related links: A Review of the Citrus Greening...