Science and Technology Innovation Program
Synthetic Biology Project
The Synthetic Biology Project aims to foster informed public and policy discourse concerning the advancement of synthetic biology – an emerging interdisciplinary field that uses advanced science and engineering to make or re-design living organisms, such as bacteria, so they can carry out specific functions. Synthetic biology involves making new genetic code, also known as DNA, which does not already exist in nature. The project provides independent, rigorous analysis that can inform critical decisions affecting the research, commercialization and use of synthetic biology. Its objective is to help ensure that, as synthetic biology moves forward, possible risks are minimized and benefits maximized. For more information, please visit: http://www.synbioproject.org.
Issues in this Series
This report assesses how implementation of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing (NP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) may affect U.S. researchers working in the area of synthetic biology. It also analyzes selected provisions in CBD-related national legislation predating the NP that may be relevant for such researchers.
There has been little change in public awareness of either synthetic biology or nanotechnology since previous surveys, according to this 2013 poll of more than 800 U.S. adults. In the poll, 23 percent of adults say they have heard a lot or some about synthetic biology, compared with 31 percent who say the same about nanotechnology. The most common associations that respondents make with synthetic biology are that it is unnatural, man-made, and artificial or that it has to do with reproducing life.
Press coverage of synthetic biology in the United States and Europe increased significantly between 2008 and 2011. This report builds on the project’s earlier study of press coverage in the United States and Europe during the 2003-2008 period. The new report finds an increase in the sheer number of articles about synthetic biology. It further finds that this coverage is driven by high-profile events and that there are growing similarities in how the technology is covered in the United States and Europe. This report also highlights key recommendations from recent reports focused on the press and public engagement.
This July 2011 issue of Synthetic Biology 2.0 looks at the work of the United States Presidential Bioethics Commission, the dominant discourse in the synthetic biology debate, vaccines as the first commercial applicaiton of synthetic biology, do-it-yourself biology, biosecurity, and biofiction where science and arts meet.
The first edition of the Synthetic Biology Newsletter, published in November 2010, reviews the basics of synthetic biology, explains how this new emerging technology intersects with several areas of science and talks about its effect on public perception.
From August 16 to August 22, 2010, Hart Research Associates conducted a nationwide survey among 1,000 adults about attitudes toward the entities involved in the oversight of new scientific and technological advances, awareness of nanotechnology, and awareness of and attitudes toward synthetic biology and two potential applications of the science. According to this report, awareness of nanotechnology was at its highest measured level in five years. This same year, one in three Americans reported hearing a lot or some about nanotechnology, which was a slight increase over results in 2009.
A 2010 analysis by the Synthetic Biology Project found that the U.S. government spent around $430 million on research related to synthetic biology since 2005, with the Department of Energy funding a majority of the research. By comparison, the analysis indicated that the European Union and three individual European countries – the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and Germany – had spent approximately $160 million during that same period. Approximately 4 percent of the U.S. funding and 2 percent of the European funding was being spent to explore ethical, legal, and social implications of synthetic biology, but no projects focused on risk assessment.
A groundbreaking poll of 1,001 U.S. adults conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies found 90 percent of Americans think that the public should be better informed about the development of cutting-edge technologies, according to this 2009 report summarizing the findings.
Synthetic biology will allow scientists and engineers to create biological systems that do not occur naturally as well as to re-engineer existing biological systems to perform novel and beneficial tasks. This 2009 report presents a framework for addressing the social and ethical issues surrounding the field.
In New Life, Old Bottles: Regulating First-Generation Products of Synthetic Biology, Michael Rodemeyer examines the benefits and drawbacks of using the existing U.S. regulatory framework for biotechnology to cover the new products and processes enabled by synthetic biology. The safety of early applications of synthetic biology may be adequately addressed by the existing regulatory framework for biotechnology, especially in contained laboratories and manufacturing facilities, according to the report. But further advances in this emerging field are likely to create significant challenges for U.S. government oversight.
The increase in media coverage of synthetic biology between 2003-2008 is tracked in this 2008 report. The combined survey rests on the findings of individual U.S. and European press coverage analyses, and examines aspects of synthetic biology that may be cause for either potential public acceptance or rejection of the technology. The report concludes with an agenda for future social science research that can inform our understanding of how public perceptions of synthetic biology develop.
From August 20 to 25, 2008, Peter D. Hart Research Associates conducted a nationwide survey among 1,003 adults about awareness of and attitudes toward both nanotechnology and synthetic biology. Nearly nine in 10 Americans say they have heard just a little or nothing at all about synthetic biology, according to this 2008 report summarizing the survey findings.