Synthetic biology is a relatively new, rapidly evolving field of research within ICT, biotechnology and nanotechnology. Synthetic biology raises ethical questions about environment and health, and possible misuse by terrorists . Such ethical questions already existed for fields such as genetic engineering and nanotechnology, and the expectation is that this new field of synthetic biology will generate quite a few ethical concerns. Therefore the European Union wants to involve society at an early stage of development of synthetic biology by means of an open dialogue. This should help clarify ethical issues, and help people in forming an opinion about this emerging field of science. Involving society and stimulating dialogue are the main reasons for setting up the SYNENERGENE project with EU funds .
Within the SYNENERGENE project this Synthetic Biology Learning Platform (SBLP) aims at facilitating teachers, educational workers at museums and other science communication professionals to set up a dialogue about synthetic biology with students or other target audiences of choice. The SBLP in itself is NOT a dialogue platform, it is merely a repository of materials that may be useful for those who wish to set up a public dialogue about synthetic biology with a certain target audience.
What has the SBLP to offer?
On this site you can find more information about synthetic biology, and the socio-scientific issues surrounding this topic. Several lesson modules, texts and short videos are available which can be used for (in)formal education. For teachers and science communicators some scientific articles are placed on the platform for more in-depth information.
A definition of synthetic biology
To this day there is no official definition for the term 'synthetic biology', but in 2014 the European Commission held a public consultation and the following definition was derived from it: “Synthetic biology is the application of science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the design, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials in living organisms” .
The innovative part about synthetic biology is the approach, where complete new biological systems and (micro-)organisms can be designed and created on DNA-level. This marks the difference with biotechnology. In biotechnology, existing processes or organisms from nature are adapted, while within synthetic biology only non-natural molecules are used to create completely new biological mechanisms, phenomena and systems from the ground up. This way scientists no longer have to work with genetic information that is already present in nature, but instead can synthesize this genetic information themselves.
Aims of synthetic biology
The different types of scientific research regarding synthetic biology can be divided into three main categories depending on the aim they are working towards:
- Design and construct machines that can make standard pieces of DNA (called BioBricks). Scientists can use these BioBricks to integrate them into already existing DNA, or to make new pieces of DNA by ‘gluing’ them together. This way new desirable characteristics can be created in an organism.
- The design of extremely efficient cells without any ‘useless’ DNA. This means that additional, superfluous DNA (that is not necessary for survival of the cell) of the genome can be cut away to make a more efficient ‘frame’. This ‘frame’ then could be the fundament of a new synthetic organism. In order to make a ‘frame’ scientists start working on genomes already existing in nature.
- The creation of ‘protocells’ from scratch to try to simulate living cells. Such protocells or ‘minimal cells’ only contain the most essential elements necessary to create a living cell. This can be done using existing genes and enzymes, or new synthetic components.
These components can then be placed in lipid vesicles, a kind of jacket made out of fatty substances, that are then kept alive .
All these techniques are meant to eventually create micro-organisms carrying out specific tasks, for example bacteria that produce medicines, or algae that produce fuel . Who knows, maybe one day street lanterns will be replaced by light-emitting trees.
Societal implications and supporting dialogue
Before synthetic biology can have societal impact like that, it is important that a lot more research is done. In 2010 the first cell with a completely synthetic genome was created , and since then a lot more research has been carried out on this new development. Many potential applications are not here yet, but every day they are coming closer to our daily lives. Therefore it is of great importance to start an open dialogue about synthetic biology now, so that people are informed in time and can form a balanced opinion on synthetic biology and its potential applications. Hopefully the materials on this SBLP will be of use in while entering an open dialogue about this emerging field of science.