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Aug. 19, 2013

Panel Discusses Future of Synthetic Biology

On Aug. 16 the National Research Council and the U.S. Department of State held a panel discussion to explore the future of synthetic biology, an emerging field that uses scientific and engineering approaches to understand and manipulate biology. The panel discussed some of the key science, policy, and societal opportunities and challenges facing the international community with regard to synthetic biology. The event was moderated by Jonathan Margolis, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for science, space, and health, and introduced by E. William Colglazier, the science and technology adviser to the U.S. secretary of state.

Drew Endy of Stanford University's bioengineering program spoke about the science of synthetic biology and described the goal that he and other bioengineers are pursuing. "We would like to make living matter programmable -- not to change ourselves or the world, but to make things work a little bit better," Endy said. That requires implementing computer-like technology inside a living cell, so that it controls the living system as it grows, he explained. Such approaches could allow engineers to program plants to manufacture useful substances, for example.

Richard Johnson of GlobalHelix LLC pointed out that synthetic biology has implications for U.S. foreign policy and will affect the nation's economic competitiveness because of its broad range of applications.  For example, the field is affecting energy and biofuels in ways that may well displace some fossil fuel based methods of production.  In the health care field it will influence drug discovery and development and enable more rapid vaccine development, among other applications.  Synthetic biology could also support the U.S.' efforts to support sustainable development -- for example, by serving as a platform for the next Green Revolution in agriculture, he said.

Eleanore Pauwels of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars spoke about how the public and media are perceiving developments in synthetic biology.  Members of focus groups she has convened have expressed concern about control and oversight of these technologies; as one member pointed out, "There's not someone who's asking 'Should we do this?'"  The public is asking for oversight, transparency, regulation, and benefit-sharing, said Pauwels.

The event was held at the Department of State and was a follow-up to the release of Positioning Synthetic Biology to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century: Summary Report of a Six Academies Symposium Series, which synthesized discussions at three international gatherings on the topic, held during 2011 and 2012 in the United Kingdom, China, and the United States.  The symposium series was a collaboration of national science and engineering academies of the United States, the United Kingdom, and China.