Synthetic biology, a novel and extreme form of genetic engineering, has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years from civil society organizations concerned about the field’s health, environmental and social justice risks. While concerns about synthetic biology and its social consequences abound, the terrain of the field itself – its key players, funders, and research subjects – has been the subject of few studies.
A recent article, Synthetic Biology: Mapping the Scientific Landscape, helps remedy this lacuna of information about the international distribution and content of synthetic biology research. The article, authored by Paul Oldhamn, Stephen Hall, and Geoff Burton in the open-source journal PLoS ONE, provides a wealth of data about the emerging field. The authors, who conduct their research at the Lancaster University (UK) and Yokohama University (Japan), organize and analyze a number of topics concerning the synthetic biology field.
What makes this article unique is its accessibility in easy-to-decipher visualizations of data on core topics: trends in synthetic biology research (publication trends, key terms, and main researchers), primary organizational networks for synthetic biology research, and primary funding organizations. The wealth of data, and its accessibility, makes the article a must-read for anyone interested in synthetic biology policy and governance.
The authors aim to “make existing data on the scientific literature on synthetic biology available in an online interactive workbook so that researchers, policy makers and civil society can explore the data and draw conclusions for themselves.” Specifically, the goal of the article was to inform the international policy debates on the governance of synthetic biology conducted by a subsidiary body of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Aside from the accessibility and innovation in organizing and presenting some complex data, the article’s findings are also of interest to advocates aiming to avert a synthetic biology disaster. While Synthetic Biology: Mapping the Scientific Landscape doesn’t commit to any specific policy option, it does suggest that a moratorium on the environmental release of synthetic organisms and products might be one feasible approach to preventing a potential ecological catastrophe. The article suggests:
[A] moratorium could be designed that provided opportunities for regular periodic review to allow for the development and testing of biocontainment and control strategies. This approach would recognise the presently limited nature of synthetic biology research directed to field release and the limitations of existing research on engineered biocontainment and control strategies. The existence of a moratorium might, as an incidental benefit, send a strong signal to the ‘biohacking’ community on the acceptable limits of behaviour and encourage wider professionalisation in a field involving a meeting of different disciplines and standards. In short, a moratorium could buy time for the field to develop appropriate standards.
It’s encouraging to see the prospect of a moratorium on release of synthetic organisms being taken seriously by academics. The moratorium proposal aligns with one of the centerpieces of a recent policy document, The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology, which has been endorsed by 113 civil society organizations and was discussed at the recent Convention on Biological Diversity Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice meeting.
It remains unclear what the future holds for synthetic biology. However, making readable data concerning the field’s development publicly available will hopefully contribute to a robust and democratic discussion about the field’s future.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
Posted in Global Governance, Synthetic Biology
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