Synthetic Biology public dialogue - background

Supplementary content information

Dr Brian Johnson, Dialogue Chair. Background information on synthetic biology and the need for dialogue.

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Professor Lord Robert Winston

Stephen, thank you very much indeed. I think it’s appropriate to ask Brian Johnson to speak next because Brian, I hope, will be able to provide a brief overview of what he actually sees synthetic biology to cover and also of course why you feel there is a need for dialogue at all, if it isn’t blindingly obvious. And I should say that Brian has been a key mover in this dialogue process, it’s worth pointing out that really he addressed the EPSRC group initially, which sort of sent this thing moving forward and that was why David Delpy, who is also on the panel, wrote to Doug Kell who we’ll hear about, to propose the dialogue and I think it’s perhaps also relevant to just mention ScienceWise in the same process, because ScienceWise of course have been promoting dialogue, I think, in a very excellent way on a number of scientific issues so this really is the next phase. Brian, over to you.

Dr Brian Johnson

Thank you Robert. For those of you who don’t know what synthetic biology is all about, I’d like to give you a brief overview of how synthetic biology has come about and then I want to talk about what this dialogue is all about and how we got here.

Now, I’m going to start by making a pretty obvious statement that people have always been curious about how living things work and certainly since the dawn of history, humans have carefully taken apart plants, animals, including of course ourselves, and more recently micro-organisms, to try to find out how they work. And in the past 50 years our understanding of this has centred at the molecular level, with, as we all know spectacular advances being made in our knowledge of how genes work, how they are translated into cellular components and how they control the whole organism.

More recently, in the last 20 years, researchers have been able to store genetic information on computer databases that can be accessed by the global scientific community, indeed, many of them can be accessed by the general public if you know where to look.

At the same time, bio-chemists have learnt how to synthesise the basic genetic components of cells’ RNA and DNA, with increasingly good accuracy. In other words we can now assemble long lengths of these molecules, which are the blue-print for life and increasingly we can do this very quickly.

About 10 years ago, groups of biologists, chemists, engineers and computer scientists, people who don’t normally work together very easily, realised that it might be possible to design biological components such as DNA, proteins and the molecular modules that assemble and run cells. The concept of synthetic biology was born and multidisciplinary teams, notably here and in the US, set out to make that aspiration a reality.

As we know from Venter’s work, pioneering teams have demonstrated, for example, that working viruses could be assembled from gene sequences stored on computers and Venter’s team in America, only last month demonstrated, that bacterial chromosomes can be synthesised from scratch and successfully transplanted into a cell and they work.

So synthetic biology has reached a new and important developmental stage, because, in the near future, I think we will be able to design and assemble at least micro-organisms that can do things that are normally done now by crude and energy-intensive electro-mechanical devices.

On a longer timescale, it should be possible to use designer organisms to produce fuel, industrial raw materials, engineering components, drugs and perhaps - this makes people feel a little bit queasy - food. Several eminent scientists have, in my view, rightly described synthetic biology as the second industrial revolution and undoubtedly there is great potential in this new scientific culture. But like all science and technology, besides the potential benefits there are also societal and ethical issues that will come out of synthetic biology. The Research Councils, especially BBSRC and EPSRC who fund most synthetic biology research in the UK, together with the learned societies, especially Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society, realised several years ago that synthetic biology was likely to generate public concerns and was potentially a controversial scientific area.

Now, it’s all very well saying that, but we can only guess of what the issues might be, so in 2007, BBSRC’s Bioscience in society panel, commissioned social scientists Andy Barmer and Paul Martin at the University of Nottingham, to give us a view of what societal and ethical issues might arise from synthetic biology. They produced an excellent and widely read report which confirmed the views of the Research Councils and recommended that we engage with the public at an early stage in the development of synthetic biology before commercial products appear and that public engagement should also involve scientific researchers, social scientists, NGOs and ethicists. Now, partly as a response to that report, the societal and ethical issues panels of BBSRC and EPSRC combined forces, to initiate the public dialogue that started last year and that’s produced the report that is before you now.

We commissioned TNS / BMRB as the main contractor and Darren is going to talk after me about what it did and Laura Grant Associates as evaluators because we wanted to learn from the process and ScienceWise, as Robert has said, provided valuable advice and funding.

We hoped to capture a wide range of public views, including people’s aspirations for synthetic biology and their concerns. Most of all, we wanted this dialogue to be a real conversation between the research community and members of the public and to employ innovative techniques, such as video ethnography, of which I’m sure you are all familiar, where researchers take a video camera, make a diary of their daily lives, to give public participants insights, not only into the world of science, but also into the world of scientists and that was very interesting, I know, to a number of participants.

BMRB ran a series of three workshops at four locations, involving 160 public participants and a number of researchers including social scientists. They also interviewed 41 stakeholders with a professional interest in synthetic biology and that included NGOs and industrialists. Public participants were drawn from a wide range of backgrounds, of ethnicity, faiths and abilities so we are pretty confident that they represent a pretty good sample of society as a whole.

The whole process was overseen by a lively and diverse oversight group including sociologists, NGOs and scientists, who were charged with acting as critical friends to the contractors. I want to thank that group for their hard work. As an aside, I can say that chairing that group was a fascinating challenge with never a dull moment. I especially want to thank, like Robert, the public participants in the workshops, some of whom are here today, for the time and the effort that they put into those workshops. Thank you very much, all of you.

This dialogue is, I think, unique in the area of public engagement, not only in terms of how it was planned and conducted, but also because it is taking place at a very early stage in the science. This presents some real challenges, not least because most public participants were at the start, unaware of synthetic biology and there are as yet no tangible syn-bio products. But it also presents opportunities because it means that the outcome of this dialogue can be used at an early stage in the planning and strategy of synthetic biology.

It’s perhaps a measure of the success of this stage, in the dialogue, that many participants are interested in synthetic biology and have said that they want to continue their dialogue with researchers. I hope we can enable them to do this, because as chair of the steering group, I would like to see the dialogue continue within institutions and through public debate. In other words become embedded in the business of synthetic biology science and technology. To my mind it’s only right and proper that members of the public have the means to make their views available to scientists and for those views to be taken into account and for researchers to be able to engage easily and openly with the society within which they operate. Thank you.

[Sound of audience clapping]