Synthetic Biology

Letter to New Scientist

(1 page)
July, 2010

Helena Paul and Ricarda Steinbrecher

Like Tom Wakeford and Jackie Haq (26 June, p 26), we were part of the group overseeing the preliminary dialogue between scientists and members of the public, discussing breakthroughs in synthetic biology with a view to gauging their response to the new technologies. We consider that during the dialogue, several scientists made statements about synthetic biology that bore no relation to current knowledge, and did not mention the uncertainties involved. In particular, we felt that the principle of scientific uncertainty was not always fully conveyed, despite, in our opinion, the public being perfectly capable of understanding it. We sense that core values in science risk being eroded, perhaps by the struggle for funds, the pressure for marketable results or by a lack of respect for public opinion. This is of particular concern considering the key role scientists play in communicating new and emerging technologies to the public. Due to the multidisciplinary nature of synthetic biology, we need to be aware that there are competing scientific cultures and outlooks in this field. Of utmost importance is the protection of the "inconvenient uncertainties" in biological systems: our knowledge of how living organisms and biological systems function is full of gaps, and we must resist the convenience of treating an organism as a series of parts to be assembled. We must ensure that all hypotheses are tested against observation. These are major challenges for the scientific community. To overcome them we need to ensure that uncertainties and gaps in knowledge are properly reflected in all scientific debates. The synthetic biology dialogue was to be a first step towards assessing the field and developing a process for public examination of proposed new technologies. The next steps will be crucial both for public trust and scientific debate.