Technology & Science

Scientists call for action on synthetic biology

Predicting that synthetic biology is on the brink of "revolutionizing our approach to problems ranging from eco-safe energy to outbreaks of malaria," an international gathering of researchers says more needs to be done to advance the field.

Predicting that synthetic biology is on the brink of "revolutionizing our approach to problems ranging from eco-safe energy to outbreaks of malaria," an international gathering of researchers said more needs to be done to advance the field.

Synthetic biology combines biology, engineering and nanotechnology to build or redesign biological systems, changing the way they develop in nature.

Seventeenscientists issued a statement calling for increased emphasis on two fronts — the foundations of the science and the societal implications.

"The early 21st century is a time of tremendous promise and tremendous peril," says the statement. "We face daunting problems of climate change, energy, health, and water resources."

"As with any powerful technology, the promise comes with risk. We need to develop protective measures against accidents and abuses of synthetic biology. A system of best practices must be established to foster positive uses of the technology and suppress negative ones. The risks are real; but the potential benefits are truly extraordinary."

Thestatement cites examples ofsynthetic biology applicationssuch as "micro-organisms that convert plant matter to fuels, or that synthesize new drugs or target and destroy rogue cells in the body."

The call for action, released Monday, was drafted at the Kavli Futures Symposium in Ilulissat, Greenland.

It is signed by scientists from the California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Cornell University, J. Craig Venter Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Institute for Advanced Study, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Stanford University, theUniversity of California at Berkeley, France's Ecole Normale Superieure, Delft University of Technology, the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, TU Dresden, Israel's Weizman Institute of Science, Systems Biology Institute and Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Japan.

"Researchers— among the best in their fields— in areas such as nanoscience, physics, biology, materials science and engineering met to share their expertise and brainstorm on one of the most promising yet controversial fields facing science today," said Cees Dekker, professor of molecular biophysics in the Kavli Institute of NanoScience at the Delft University of Technology.

"That we not only achieved a consensus, but resolved to issue a unanimous statement on the critical importance of this field is significant."