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Oversight For Synthetic Biology

Countries call for precaution as new technology is developed

by Jessica Morrison
November 10, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 45

As researchers and policymakers struggle to comprehend synthetic biology, governments from across the world are calling for caution for this emerging technology.

Organisms produced through synthetic biology should be managed and their risk assessed before they are released to the environment, countries agreed last month at a United Nations meeting in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“Synthetic biology has been like the Wild West—a risky technology frontier with little oversight or regulation,” says Jim Thomas, program director of ETC Group, an Ottawa, Ontario-based environmental advocacy and antipoverty organization. “The good news is that precaution won the day” in Pyeongchang, he says.

But experts say that the new recommendation from the international community is unlikely to have any direct or immediate effect on synthetic biology research in the U.S. because the country is not a formal partner to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Most of the rest of the world’s nations are partners, 194 in total. Although the U.S. sends representatives to the biennial meetings of treaty partners, U.S. participation in policy negotiations is limited.

“The delegates are restricted in terms of what they can accomplish at those meetings,” says Todd Kuiken, an environmental scientist and policy analyst for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C. But the representatives can exert influence by lobbying for U.S. interests with other countries.

The Pyeongchang meeting highlighted a divide between the richer nations of the technologically developed world and poorer nations whose economies rely on agricultural exports, Thomas says. Many developing countries called for a moratorium on environmental release and commercial use of the products of synthetic biology.

The precautionary approach taken by the treaty partners is controversial, says Jennifer Kuzma, codirector of the Genetic Engineering & Society Center at North Carolina State University. “The U.S. has traditionally been more promotional of synthetic biology,” Kuzma says. “The precautionary approach is something that many U.S. policymakers and scientists working on these products think moves too slowly to get products into the marketplace.”

The call governments made in Pyeong­chang is advisory, she continues. “They are in an information-gathering phase, urging countries to take precaution.” They have not set their sights on a legally binding international agreement for controlling the products of synthetic biology, she adds.

Countries that are parties to the convention established a working group to identify similarities and differences between organisms that have been genetically modified and the products of synthetic biology. That group will also assess risks and benefits of synthetic biology products in the environment and work toward an operational definition of synthetic biology.

That definition will take some doing because researchers haven’t yet come to agreement about exactly what synthetic biology is. Some researchers see it as the application of engineering principles to living organisms. This definition suggests that researchers understand a biological system well enough that components are designed with purpose in mind, says Tim Trevan, executive director of the International Council for the Life Sciences, in McLean, Va. Some define it as the development of standard biological components that can be retrieved from a repository or as simply advanced genetic engineering. Others, meanwhile, think a definition is an unnecessary stumbling block on the path to developing oversight.

Countries will reconvene under the biodiversity treaty, with synthetic biology on the agenda, in Los Cabos, Mexico, in November 2016.


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