Today, scientists are going beyond sequencing and manipulating genes, they are building life from scratch. Synthetic biology refers to the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems which do not exist in the natural world and to the redesign of existing biological systems to perform specific tasks. Basically, synthetic biology breaks down biological processes (e.g. protein production from a gene) to then builds systems that perform a particular desired function (e.g. oscillators which can produce protein on demand).
Scientists predict that within 2-5 years it will be possible to synthesize any virus. In 5-10 years simple bacterial genomes will be routinely synthesized and the construction of designer genomes commonplace. These “designer genomes” will be inserted into empty bacterial cells thus giving birth to new living and self-replicating organisms. Other synthetic biologists hope to reconfigure the genetic pathways of existing organisms to perform new functions such as the manufacture high-value drugs or chemicals.
Synthetic biology is a powerful and transformative technique which merges biology and engineering. It opens up enormous scientific, commercial, and health opportunities. The promise of synthetic biology needs to be better understood, the variety of players involved identified, and their - potentially conflicting -research norms and business strategies explored.
Synthetic biology will undoubtedly also raise policy challenges for governments if the maximum benefits are to be realised. These include social, economic, and legal challenges, as well as biosecurity and safety concerns. Parallels to past experience with transformative technologies in the life sciences may be drawn (genetic engineering and bio-nano). The OECD is in an ideal position to forge a common understanding in the policy community of the issues to be aware of (research needs, community building, safety and security concerns, regulatory implications, market pathways, public understanding). Moreover, the OECD can launch an early dialogue on what reasonable and responsible conduct might entail in this field and thus assure that the economic and social benefits of this new technology are safely encouraged.
International Symposium on Opportunities and Challenges in the Emerging Field of Synthetic Biology - 9-10 July 2009
Noordwijk Medicines Agenda