Developers engaged in “synthetic biology” are discussing proposals for simply self-regulating this new applied science with far reaching implications.

Synthetic biology involves the construction of entirely new living systems from basic genetic blocks to make designer organisms (mostly viruses and bacteria) capable of functions normally associated with mechanical production. Rather than engineering an existing organism, it rewrites the code.

The journal Nature carried the statement in October 2004 that “If biologists are indeed on the threshold of synthesizing new life forms, the scope for abuse or inadvertent disaster could be huge”.

Leading practitioners are currently meeting in Berkley California under a conference entitled Synthetic Biology 2.0 to consider self-regulation proposals as a potential “alternative” to regulation by Governments.

The Sustainability Council has written to the conference leaders advocating an early engagement with stakeholders and formal regulatory arrangements with governments.

History has shown that self-regulation was the wrong model when it was used to govern the early stages of GMO development. While it can be a useful complement, it can not be a substitute.

Opportunities for individual entities to gain at the risk/expense of society as a whole need to be effectively checked in order to protect innocent parties and avoid distorting incentives for investment. As synthetic biology poses risks to the environment and human health that are clearly of a significant scale, self-regulation alone is entirely inadequate.

In investment terms, the development of new branches of applied science are ultimately dependant on public acceptance for their commercial success. First generation GM foods are the textbook example of how societal responses were not adequately taken into account.

In New Zealand, the HSNO Act covers or can be readily extended to cover the targets of synthetic biology. However, its potential implications will require analysis well outside this frame and mean New Zealand also needs to take an active part in shaping the global framework that governs this technology.


Nature, 7 Oct 2004, Synthetic Biology: Starting From Scratch, Philip Ball