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Posted: September 2014

U.S.-Funded Report Highlights Urgency of More Research on Synthetic Biology Risks
Colleen Cordes

A recent report funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation highlights the need for a major, coordinated new effort to research the ecological impacts of organisms developed through the extreme form of genetic engineering known as synthetic biology.

The report, “Creating a Research Agenda for the Ecological Implications of Synthetic Biology,” describes a sweep of unanswered questions about ecological impacts of synthetic biology that is both dramatic and disturbing. What’s required, it adds, is a sustained effort by interdisciplinary research groups, long-term funding, and “a coordinated, prioritized research strategy.” It also calls for a similar research effort to assess the economic and social implications so that “the widest possible context for ecological impacts” can be studied.

The report was prepared by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Program on Emerging Technologies. It reflects the outcome of two workshops they organized that mainly brought ecologists, environmental scientists, and evolutionary biologists together with synthetic bioengineers from universities and businesses. Other participants included a few civil society groups.

Despite the fact that efforts to synthetically engineer living organisms have been ongoing for at least 15 years, the Wilson Center and MIT authors state that their project marks the first major effort by researchers to prioritize the questions that need to be answered to understand the ecological implications of this enterprise. The Wilson Center, in releasing the report, also issued a statement quoting James Collins, professor of Natural History and the Environment at Arizona State University and former Assistant Director of Biological Sciences at the National Science Foundation, about the lack of such research – and its urgency.

“We hope this report raises awareness about the lack of research into these ecological issues,” said Collins, who helped lead the workshops. “We involved experts in the ecological research and synthetic biology communities to help identify priority research areas – and we believe the report can be a roadmap to guide the necessary work. The rapid pace of research and commercialization in the field of synthetic biology makes it important to begin this work now.”

The workshops focused on trying to define what is unique about synthetic biology, and how that uniqueness affects the research agenda for evaluating its impacts. Two aspects were identified, the report says, that distinguishes synthetic biology from conventional biotechnology efforts:

  • Novelty and Speed: The techniques involved, unlike earlier forms of genetic manipulation, allow bioengineers to go “beyond incremental changes” to organisms. This leap to the new “could transcend common evolutionary pathways.” And the “speed at which these leaps could occur is unprecedented.”
  • More Complex, Dynamic Ecological and Evolutionary Interactions: Synthetic biologists are interested in inserting long sequences of artificial DNA designed on computers into organisms, involving multiple new traits and sequences that may not occur in nature. The result could be a complex mix of new traits. So understanding how the increased complexity of the engineering will affect the whole organism and how an organism so designed will interact with the larger environment will be much more complicated than is the case for conventional genetic engineering. Conventional genetic engineering typically has focused on trying to change a single trait by inserting naturally occurring genetic material from one species into another, or by deleting genetic material. A further complication is the challenge of understanding evolution as a factor. (Many of the organisms being experimented with right now are microorganisms, which can mutate and adaptively evolve quickly.) That means researchers should simultaneously study the immediate ecological implications of introducing a synthetically engineered organism into an ecosystem and the dynamic ecological implications of its evolution.

The report (p. 5) describes seven priority research areas, all of which pose “hurdles to understanding the potential ecological effects” of releasing living organisms developed with synthetic biology:

  • How to deal with the lack of a wild-type “parent” organism to which we can compare a synthetically engineered organism for risk assessments.
  • Issues involving phenotypic characterization, such as how to identify and prioritize synthetically engineered traits that are of ecological concern.
  • How to measure properties of fitness, genetic stability, and lateral gene transfer and their interactions in synthetically engineered organisms “with consistency, reliability, and confidence.”
  • Questions about the extent of biological and physical controls that should be required before the release of a synthetically engineered organism. This includes the need to explore the role that particular environmental conditions may play in indicating a need for internal or external controls. Also, “Which types of environmental releases are likely to be irreversible?”
  • Issues of monitoring and surveillance: Will it be practically possible to monitor and track such organisms and their ecological and evolutionary effects? What new systems of monitoring and surveillance will be needed to do that, and who should manage that data and who should manage access to it?
  • What models will we need to use before releasing organisms derived with synthetic biology techniques, in order to project what their ecological impacts will be? And is a new approach to modeling necessary that would integrate engineering with the natural, physical, and social sciences?
  • Questions about how best to standardize “testing methods, data reporting, and organism characterization for ecological evaluations?” Who should be responsible for coming up with those standards? And who should enforce them?

The report suggests that “over the next five years” a broad range of synbio products will be “moving toward commercialization.” It also asserts that there is an opportunity now, “before large numbers of synthetic biology applications move out of the lab and into the market and the environment,” to fund and carry out the needed research. However, it does not address a key issue raised by the litany of unanswered questions — whether there’s a need to slow down the development of synthetically engineered organisms, their commercialization, and related plans for environmental releases. Such a slowdown would allow more time for the research to evaluate risks and for public deliberations about the policies and regulations that would need to be in place before – not after – such releases, to prevent harmful consequences.


Cameron, D. E., C. J. Bashor, and J.J. Collins (2014). “A Brief History of Synthetic Biology,” Nature Reviews Microbiology, vol. 12, no. 5, pp. 381-390. doi:10.1038/nrmicro3239

Drinkwater, K., T. Kuiken, S. Lightfoot, J. McNamara, and K. Oye (2014). “Creating a Research Agenda for the Ecological Implications of Synthetic Biology.” The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A. Lovell (May 29, 2014). “An Ecological Risk Research Agenda for Synthetic Biology: Report Developed by the Ecological Community Highlights Priority Research Areas,” the Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Innovation Program.

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