Synthetic biology is becoming one of the hottest new fields of biology, with the potential to no less than revolutionize the way we do biotechnology today. By applying the toolbox of engineering disciplines to biology, a whole set of potential applications become possible ranging very widely across scientific and engineering disciplines. Some of the potential benefits of synthetic biology, such as the development of low-cost drugs or the production of chemicals and energy by engineered bacteria are enormous.
There are, however, also potential and perceived risks due to deliberate or accidental damage. In order to ensure a vital and successful development of this new scientific field – in addition to describe the potential benefits – it is absolutely necessary to gather information also about the risks and to devise possible biosafety strategies to minimize them. Also, ethical issues of synthetic biology just start being explored, with hardly any ethicists specifically focusing on the area of synthetic biology. While few undertakings on safety and ethics have recently started in the US, there is a gap on a European level to investigate these aspects.
Our project SYNBIOSAFE is the first in Europe that focuses particularly on the safety and ethical concerns and tries to facilitate a socially acceptable development in all related fields. We pursue our objectives by means of a fact-finding mission, our contribution to the European “inaugural” Conference on Synthetic Biology in Zurich SB 3.0 June 2007, an open e-conference and an international workshop. The aim of our project was to stimulate a European debate on these issues at an early stage. Past experiences, especially in the field of GM-crops, have shown the importance of an early bio-safety and ethics debate. The community recognized this need, but discussions were (and still are) are fragmentary.
We aimed to stimulate a European debate in a proactive way, contributing to the European synthetic biology community, supplementing genuine biosafety, biosecurity and bioethics aspects.