A Global Village
Issue 3 » Technology

Does Synthetic Biology Need A New PR Campaign?

Benjamin Miller, Imperial College London

Synthetic biology is a fascinating emerging field with the potential to reinvent our relationship with the life sciences. The core concept includes the standardization of biological parts that may be reengineered for the creation of increasingly complex and novel biological devices. These devices have applications in diverse areas from healthcare to biofuels.

Yet to many members of the public such engineering of biological systems is akin to playing God, or at best potentially dangerous. Genetic engineering, particularly in the form of genetically modified (GM) food and crops, suffers from very low public understanding and support stemming from ineffective public and media engagement. Similar negative reactions were re-ignited earlier this year with the announcement of the creation of ‘synthetic life’ by the US-based Venter Institute.

Could a student-led approach help pre-empt a similar PR fate for synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology represents a paradigm shift in the way we view the life sciences, moving from passive research into a world where we can actively develop and redesign biological systems. The core concept is the standardization of biological parts, breaking down a complex natural system into basic components that may be engineered in much the same way as electronics. Physically this is achieved by creating sections of DNA with a specific standard prefix and suffix, allowing us to connect components together in a relatively straightforward manner. Functionally this is achieved by ensuring that there are no unexpected interactions between the separate components that are combined, enabling the creation of increasingly complex novel biological devices.

The core concept is the
standardization of biological
parts, breaking down a
complex natural system into
basic components that may
be engineered in much the
same way as electronics

Facilitating the expansion of this new field are recent technical advances that enable scientists to both rapidly sequence existing DNA and create custom DNA sequences at a low cost. When combined with a vast source of background knowledge, these factors have created the perfect opportunity for synthetic biology to flourish.

It is expected that, in the future, technologies based on synthetic biology will be applicable to many aspects of our lives, although healthcare and biofuels will be the first to see major rewards. A common example is the production of synthetic artemisinin, an anti-malarial drug difficult to obtain by chemical means but easy to obtain through biological devices made via synthetic biology. In the long-term, however, applications are likely to be seen across the entire commercial spectrum. Additionally, there is an attraction at the government level; this new technology requires relatively little initial investment, levelling the playing field somewhat for early adopters.

Synthetic Life
The benefits are apparent, but what are the problems? As with any research involving the redesign of biological systems, uncontrolled release is a big concern. Unique to synthetic biology, however, is the issue of bio-hacking. The relatively low entry cost opens up the possibility of people designing biological parts in their own home, under the radar of regulatory authorities, and potentially creating something dangerous. Organisations such as DIYBio encourage amateur scientists to explore synthetic biology while at the same time providing a web-based platform for them to communicate and keep track of what individual ‘labs’ are doing. Interestingly, DIYBio places significant emphasis on ensuring that people understand the risks and work safely.

Students are unlikely to
have formed concrete
opinions surrounding
the various questions
synthetic biology raises,
placing them in a position
to embrace discussions
with an open mind

However, public engagement is arguably the most pressing challenge for the synthetic biology community. As the world saw with its parent technology, genetic engineering, a lack of public engagement coupled with adverse media coverage heavily influenced public perception despite the technology enjoying widespread support at a scientific level. At present the only thing saving synthetic biology from the same fate is its relative obscurity.

In May 2010, the world saw synthetic biology hit the headlines for the first time. Craig Venter, a biologist formerly involved in the race for the human genome, claimed to have ‘created’ Synthia, the first synthetic life. Whether this was technically true or not, the media’s use of language was inflammatory.

Headlines such as ‘Scientist plays God’ and ‘Man creates Artificial Life’ steered debate in the same direction as it had done previously with GM. The scientific community seemingly remains unprepared to stimulate an informed debate regarding issues such as the potential for misuse of technologies and ethical, social and environmental implications. It has even been suggested that the name ‘synthetic biology’ immediately triggers a negative innate reaction in the wider public by implying that it is something artificial and thus reducing trust. These issues need to be addressed for synthetic biology to progress with widespread public backing – crucial from both a research-funding and implementation-deployment perspective.

Pre-Emptive Strike
Evidently, the importance of upstream public engagement cannot be underestimated. A pre-emptive effort is needed to encourage the public to participate in a broad dialogue with scientists about the central issues raised by synthetic biology. Answers to challenging questions such as how might we ensure the safety of the technology, ownership of intellectual property rights and how the use of the technology is regulated must be communicated to the public in a transparent manner.

There have already been some attempts to engage in a dialogue with the public. The BBSRC recently published a lengthy report on a public engagement programme implemented across the UK involving both social scientists and experts in synthetic biology. However, the workshops with the public were small in number and not as far-reaching as one would hope. It is unclear whether reports like this will have any impact on the way research is carried out in the UK, how research priorities are decided and whether or not a UK-wide regulation system will be implemented.

Perhaps a more effective strategy is for university students to play a role in public engagement exercises. Crucially, students would explore the translational aspects of the research they might one day carry out and learn right from the start that engaging with the public is a fundamental aspect of life as a scientist. When research is funded by public money, scientists need to be accountable and therefore have a responsibility to inform and engage with taxpayers. In addition to this, the experience of explaining complex scientific theories to non-specialists is an important skill for researchers in any field and one that is all too often neglected in a scientist’s training.

Furthermore, public engagement, when carried out by university students, may well receive better reception from members of the public. Students are unlikely to have formed concrete opinions surrounding the various questions synthetic biology raises, placing them in a position to embrace discussions with an open mind. This is in stark contrast to current public engagement, which has a tendency to stray towards a one-way flow of information. The public must be engaged, not lectured.

iGEMers Try Something New
One example of public engagement at a student level came from the Imperial College London iGEM team. The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) allows teams of undergraduates from all over the world conduct a research project throughout the summer to develop an idea for how to put synthetic biology into action. The competition culminated in the presentation of these ideas at the iGEM Jamboree, held in November at MIT in Boston. In addition to their core research, the Imperial team undertook a series of workshops hosted at various London secondary schools.

The public must be
engaged, not lectured

The team decided that school students would be an interesting demographic to present the subject of synthetic biology to – the idea was that engaging a younger audience could be an effective method of introducing synthetic biology to a wider public. The workshops consisted of three main sections. To start with, the concept of synthetic biology was explained and various potential applications were described. The students then brainstormed their own ideas for synthetic biology. This was a fundamental part of the workshop because the students soon became genuinely excited about the potential for a large degree of creativity in synthetic biology. Ideas the students suggested included using mice to detect mines and bacteria that live on the skin to give a tan, amongst many others.

The next part of the workshop focused on the regulation and safety issues synthetic biology raises and involved a debate between the students. This allowed them to formulate their own opinions and discuss the direction that synthetic biology may take in the future. One interesting suggestion which arose was creating a ‘driver’s license’ for users of synthetic biology so that authorities could ensure that users had the appropriate training to use the technology safely and ethically.

The last exercise of the workshop involved the production of a TV advert for a synthetic biology product of the students’ choice. Having discussed how the media can affect public perception, the students had to reassure the public that their product was safe and outline the advantages of using synthetic biology over traditional alternatives.

The response from the school students was far from what was expected. The team was greeted with a genuine fascination for synthetic biology and its emerging applications in society. There are relatively few opportunities available to school students to be creative with science and, if we are to inspire next generation’s scientists, it is initiatives such as this that have the potential to lead the way.

The UK has huge potential to become one of the leading nations in the drive toward deploying applications of synthetic biology. To achieve this, it is essential that the necessary resources are made available. This can only be accomplished with full support from the general public. Our experiences indicate that a student-led public engagement programme can be both successful and mutually beneficial, and we hope to expand our efforts in the future.

Benjamin Miller is a third year Biomedical Engineering student and was a member of Imperial College London’s successful 2010 iGEM team.

Leave A Comment