The feasibility of any project ultimately depends upon the support of society. This year, Edinburgh tried to engage with actual participants in the debate around synthetic biology and genetic modification. To that end, we conducted interviews with people representing several organisations.

The questions we asked were partially prepared in advance, but also partially a response to what the interviewees said.

Some discussion of these interviews has been placed on the separate Interview Analysis page.


Eric Hoffman; Friends of the Earth

Friends of the Earth is an international environmental group.

Eric is based in the U.S. and has a background in sustainable agriculture policy but is increasingly involved in critical analysis of synthetic biology. He was interviewed via Skype video, by our team members Yassen Abbas and Fionn Tynan-O'Mahony.

Fionn asked what FotE thinks about synthetic biology.

FotE accepts the precautionary principle: we need proof that a technology is safe before proceeding with it. Proponents need to show a certain level of safety and the ability to mitigate risk. Such a regulatory system doesn't exist in the U.S. though Eric thought Europe was slightly better in this regard. But there are insufficient safety tests.
Furthermore, test data is being kept as confidential business info; so we can't see what safety research has been done. We go forward and hope nothing bad happens; if a problem does come up it may be too late to do anything, e.g. if something escapes the lab.

Yassen asked about the future of biotechnology.

Eric said that past promises were overhyped; biotech failed to deliver in most areas, though there has been some success in medicine.
Eric argued that biotech has not benefited the public in agriculture; the only commercialised traits are those that promote pesticide use. Eric noted that the same companies often own the chemicals and the bio. Increased yields do not seem to have been achieved by genetic engineering.

Yassen asked why biotech hasn't delivered as much as it promised.

Eric was concerned that biotech progress or technology in general was driven by concerns about money and not concerns about benefits to humanity. There is a lack of a democratic approach to determine what technologies are developed.
Eric said that the lack of success was partially due to an outdated view of genetics, i.e. the "one gene causes one trait" view. Modern geneticists now know this is too simplistic, genes form a complicated network of interactions. There is a need to learn more about the systems before commercialisation.

Fionn asked about biorefineries - using agricultural waste to make products like sweeteners, vitamins, etc.

Eric said the first thing to consider is what the agricultural waste would otherwise have been used for; it may have been broken down and put back into the soil, which is important for soil health and prevention of soil erosion. So taking this biomass and putting it into a biorefinery might not be the best use of it.
There was a discussion about the biomass-based economy (e.g. to replace petroleum etc). There are issues in global justice. Eric noted that synthetic biology is mostly done in the U.S. and Europe, whereas most biomass was located in the global south (South America, Africa). This sets up a situation where the exploitation of the global south by the north is likely. Land that's in short supply for essential agriculture should not be diverted to other things.
Fionn suggested that biotechnology could be of use to the south but it would depend on who controls the technology. Eric agreed that this was a key issue.
Eric said synthetic biology was often a solution in search of a problem; we have organisms that can do X, Y and Z; what can we do with them?

Yassen asked whether biomass for use in biotech could be sustainably sourced in the future.

Eric said he was not confident. Due to predictions of increased population as well as water shortages and other shortages e.g. fertiliser, he said land is likely to be needed mostly for agriculture. He sees sustainable biomass sourcing as incompatible with large scale commercialisation of biotech based on that biomass (e.g. production of biofuels); though there might be possibilities for small-scale biotech. He does not see biotech as a very likely way of achieving a replacement for petroleum.

Yassen asked about regulations for the biotech industry.

Eric said we need to have strong containment for synthetic organisms. He thought containment level 2 might be insufficient and these organisms might need to be placed in containment level 3. [For the record, our lab uses containment level 1, the weakest level of containment.]
Eric noted that Europe has stronger regulations; he thought the U.S. regulations were very badly outdated.
He recommends improved democratic involvement of communities that are involved, e.g. communities where the work is done, or communities otherwise impacted (e.g. because they are a biomass source).
There need to be safeguards for community health and worker health, since the workers in the labs are on the frontlines.

Yassen asked what role synthetic biology should have in food production in the future.

Eric said little to no role. He said conventional techniques, proven to work and proven to have high yields, are better, especially if they are developed in a fair and sustainable way, instead of new technologies that benefit just a few people.

Fionn asked what Friends of the Earth would do if biorefineries started to exist on a large scale.

Eric said they would fight for community involvement, risk assessments for health and environment, and life-cycle analysis of the organisms. This means: what happens if they escape? On a commercial scale, organisms are certain to escape. Can the DNA transfer laterally to other organisms?
He does not envisage a future with biorefineries containing (genetically modified organisms) in people's back gardens; government regulations won't allow this.

Fionn asked about the limits of what's sensible in synthetic biology.

Eric said synthetic biology has a future in prokaryotes, but eukaryotes (and especially multi-celled organisms) are too complicated. He mentioned attempts to improve the human genome via synthetic biology. He foresees some people trying this unsuccessfully, possibly causing harm in the process.

Yassen asked what approaches (generally) should be used to solve the world's problems.

Eric said:
  1. Reduce consumption.
  2. Invest in sustainable energy sources: wind, solar, geothermal
  3. Invest in sustainable agriculture
He sees the solutions as coming from improved systems (i.e. ways humans organise themselves) instead of improved technology. For example, hunger is not currently caused because we can't produce enough food, but rather by problems of distribution. These problems are social, political and economic: who owns the food, and who profits from it?
People go hungry because they can't afford the food, not because the food isn't there. So suggesting genetic modification to increase yields doesn't address the root cause of the problem.
If we must invest in new technologies, Eric suggests we invest in technologies that are inherently less risky than biotechnology, e.g. sustainable energy sources and technologies of energy efficiency.

Yassen asked about the relationship between regulation and technological progress. He suggested countries with a relaxed regulatory regime would make progress faster.

Eric said that regulation is a burden if the only focus is profit; but if we also value people and the environment, government policy has an important role to ensure technology develop in a sustainable and just way.

Fionn asked about what motivates corporations.

Eric said while there were examples of corporations deliberately behaving badly, in many cases there is merely a short-sighted focus on profit. He is suspicious of a worldview where profits are regarded as proof that something is valuable to society. But he does not believe synthetic biologists are bad people.

Yassen asked Eric for advice to members of iGEM teams generally for their future careers.

Eric said we should think long and hard about ecological questions (e.g. life-cycle analysis) and safety, as well as issues of how technology will impact the world. He suggests that bench scientists often don't have time to think about these questions.
He suggested we ask: "Is this the only way, and is this the best way to get there?"

Murdo Macdonald and Glenn Walker; Church of Scotland

The Church of Scotland is a presbyterian church, and the most common religious denomination in Scotland; in the 2001 census, 42% of Scots said they belong to the Church of Scotland.

Murdo and Glenn are both involved in the Church's Society, Religion and Technology Project (SRTP). Murdo trained as a molecular biologist and Glenn as a chemical pharmacologist. They were interviewed in person, by our team members Fionn Tynan-O'Mahony and Yassen Abbas.

Fionn mentioned that we were interested in whether science simply drags society along, or whether it's more of a two-way progress.

Murdo said this was exactly what the SRTP was set up for, 40 years ago.

Yassen asked what their jobs involved.

Murdo explained that his full-time job is as policy officer for the Church. His work is overseen by a committee, which Glenn chairs; however Glenn's role is unpaid.
40 years ago, the Church saw that the growing oil industry in Scotland would have an increasing impact on Scottish society; and the SRTP was set up to look at the issues raised by technology, and help the Church address issues raised by science. It also helps the Church decide what it should say about ethical issues related to science. Because of its position, the Church often has an opportunity to speak out.
Over the last 40 years, the SRTP has looked at many issues. Some issues that were of concern are no longer of concern. Other issues have remained on the agenda throughout this period, for example nuclear power. And new issues, like genetic engineering, have arisen.

Fionn asked what the term "synthetic biology" meant to them.

Murdo noted that the term didn't really exist when he was a researcher, but he became aware of it when he took up his position as policy officer. He regards it as biology meeting engineering: a more ambitious form of genetic modification.

Yassen asked what role biotechnology will play in the future.

Murdo said it had a huge potential and would have many roles. There are lots of ways the technology can be used. As an example, he mentioned the production of anti-HIV drugs in a genetically modified tobacco plant.
However, he noted society might not always accept the way science wants to go. He noted that there was never a real debate on genetic modification in the United States; it simply happened. When the technology came to Europe, it was seen as an American imposition. Monsanto and others "played a bad hand" and lost public support, and this led to a harsher regulatory regime. This, however, is slowly changing.
Glenn suggested that biotechnology is used more widely than is commonly known or believed. The public might be quite surprised if they knew the extent of it all. He noted the potential for significant growth in the industry, for example in the form of spinoff companies from university research.

Fionn explained our cellulose-degrading phage system, and the creation of biorefineries. He mentioned the possibility of producing food-related products, and asked Glenn and Murdo what reaction they had.

Murdo mentioned that we often have a simplistic view of biology, which meant that the engineering approach didn't always work. However, he suggested that having enzymes in close proximity, as opposed to a soup where things just bump into each other randomly, made a certain amount of logical sense. He suggested it might simply not work.
In principle, he said there were potential benefits, but also potential pitfalls.
Glenn said degrading cellulose sounds good if the cellulose is simply a waste product. However, he wondered what new waste products would be produced in the process, and whether it would involve new problems. This would have to be examined in a risk assessment.
Murdo noted that alien species often have an unexpected impact on the environment, and we have a bad track record of introducing problem organisms into new places. Avoiding this is an important issue for synthetic biology.

Yassen asked what questions the Church would have if biorefineries were actually implemented on a large scale.

Murdo mentioned the need for risk assessments. He drew upon his own experience as a scientist and said that scientists, while knee-deep in the actual work, often don't consider the broader implications of what they're doing, since they're concentrating on getting things working. They need to take a step back to consider whether the project is worthwhile, and what the risks and benefits are.
Glenn said he would want to know about the business plan and what the economic impacts would be.

Yassen asked if there would be immediate concerns.

Murdo was most worried about accidental or deliberate release of the organisms. He noted that "killer genes" designed to stop an organism surviving outside the lab don't always work. He noted the possibility for genetic exchange between the lab organisms and wild organisms.
Glenn suggested any such project would require a major public relations exercise. He noted people are also sensitised to words like "E. coli" and "virus".

Fionn asked about regulations.

Murdo was doubtful of self-regulation. He saw legislation at a Scottish level or even UK level as unlikely; rather, he saw legislation driven by the European Union as more plausible. But because the technology moves so quickly, legislation often is outdated.
Glenn said scientists don't like being regulated, that they have a natural aversion to it. But it is necessary.

Yassen asked whether synthetic biology is "playing God".

Murdo said synthetic biology did not put us on a par with God; it was hardly the same thing as creating life de novo. He noted our dependence on other parts of the global ecosystem. We shouldn't be too proud; rather we must have a degree of humility.

Fionn asked if there is a dichotomy between science and religion.

Murdo said this was overplayed. There are areas of commonality but also areas where the two forces speak in different languages. He said science can examine "how" questions (how things work) but some of the "why" questions, the "meaning of life" questions, cannot be fully answered by science. He said they are not in conflict but not fully in tune with each other either.
Glenn said there was a popular perception that religion is dead and science answers all. The Church does not share this view.
Murdo said that in ancient times, the Pope spoke and what he said was automatically seen as true. Now science speaks and what it says is automatically seen as true. But he said neither position is correct. He said that public faith in science has been fairly strong, though has perhaps seen a lessening in recent years. People are questioning if science has all the answers.

Fionn asked about the attitudes of synthetic biologists towards the other species in nature.

Murdo recommended humility, but also not trying to force biology into the box of mechanical machines. Biological organisms are not really machines; they are flexible, able to change.
Glenn said the Venters of the world are very influential and will gain a significant following, but agreed with Murdo that humility is called for, not an aggressive attitude to nature.

Yassen said, in the recent history of science, many churches (especially in America) have taken a dim view of things like IVF and genetic engineering. He asked how open the Church of Scotland is to new innovations in science.

Murdo said that the Church's attitude is really quite positive (for example, in its recent report on the subject), and the Church sees many potential benefits. The antagonistic view of science that is sometimes put forward from a religious perspective is not always helpful. The SRTP has consciously brought in people who have a scientific background; it has explicitly brought together theologians and scientists to talk in a reasoned manner.
He said in many cases technology is inherently neutral; it can be used positively or abused. This is true of synthetic biology as well.
Glenn said the Church of Scotland is a broad church with a range of views and opinions.

Fionn said a lot of technologies promised to solve the world's environmental problems. He asked what the real solutions were.

Murdo said biotechnology might be useful, along with many other things. We need to reduce, reuse, recycle. Humanity is living beyond its means. Biotechnology might be one tool we use to ameliorate these problems.

Yassen asked what advice they would give to people considering synthetic biology as a career.

Murdo quoted the mottos of IBM and Google; and some verses found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke:
"Think. Don't be evil. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Nicolas Peyret; Scottish Enterprise

Scottish Enterprise works with the Scottish government to encourage economic development in Scotland.

Nicolas is a technology and market analyst for Scottish Enterprise, focusing on the life sciences. He was interviewed in person, by our team members Fionn Tynan-O'Mahony and Yassen Abbas.

Fionn asked Nicolas to explain his role.

His role has been to find new technologies with good potential, and help them become commercialised. Recently he has been focusing on bottlenecks in the industry, especially DNA Assembly. [Note: Scottish Enterprise recently completed a £2.5 million development of the "Genome Segment Assembly" technique in collaboration with Gingko Bioworks.]
Fionn asked whether his work involved other fields outside the life sciences. Nicolas said work in synthetic biology naturally involved other fields, because of the range of applications, for example energy and chemicals.

Yassen asked Nicolas about what the term "synthetic biology" means to him.

Nicolas said it was a new field born of a new way of looking at biology, from an engineering perspective, using engineering concepts such as reusable parts, e.g. systems that can be put in different organisms.
Yassen said that many people considered synthetic biology an engineering field. But Nicolas sees it more as a combination of both.

Fionn asked about the role of biotechnology in the future.

Nicolas said it would be enormous in the future. We can already see some applications; synthetic biology is already very important. He quoted a report that projected a $4.5 billion market by 2015. And it will continue to grow, due to the wide range of applications; for example many companies and academic groups are working on the energy aspects.
He expects that everyone will be affected in their lives by what biotechnology and synthetic biology will do.

Yassen explained our attempts to improve cellulose degradation, and spoke about how this could ultimately lead to the creation of a biorefinery that took waste and produced useful products.

Nicolas said this was a very good choice of project. There are a number of initiatives around the world involving biorefineries, and he suggests they could be good for Scotland. The degradation of cellulose is being pursued by a lot of groups; it is a hot topic. Any progress would be helpful to industry. As for the economic viability of it, further studies are required; what is the starting feedstock; what are the end products? It would be a significant investment.
Logistics would also need to be considered; e.g. where feedstocks come from. They might come from Scotland, the UK as a whole, or even be brought in from abroad.
But he sees it as an exciting topic.

Fionn said (based on our own projections) a lot of feedstock would be required; he mentioned the concept of a biomass based economy. Yassen mentioned Eric Hoffman's concerns about sustainable sources of feedstock.

Nicolas said waste of some sort would obviously be a good source, but would there be sufficient biomass to feed the biorefinery? It's important to consider all the options. Globally, many things have been considered. Some crops, such as switchgrass, have been specifically developed with biorefineries in mind. He mentioned a project using modified corn to make ethanol.

Fionn asked how an investment analyst looks at the potential of synthetic biology.

Nicolas said there are two things to consider: technology and applications. Sometimes you know that if a technology is successful, it will replace existing technologies and open up new opportunities. If you want economic projections, you must look at current markets. One must make assuptions about how quickly technology improves, and how the market will grow.
For example, consider the current consumption of fuel. If a new technology came in with cheap biofuels, we could make predictions about how the market would be affected.

Fionn asked about the future of synthetic biology in Scotland specifically.

Scotland is strong in this area. Nicolas described it as a leading centres in Europe for research. He noted that Scotland has a high number of iGEM teams for its size [five this year: Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews, Strathclyde]. He suggested that the various research institutions could come together to form a centre of excellence.
In terms of industry though, there are relatively few Scottish companies working in the area of synthetic biology. But there are a number of industrial biotech companies interested in biotech in Scotland.
He noted that industrial biotech is currently (mostly) based around using existing organisms, for example to do degradations or product modifications. He said there is a limit to what can be achieved with these organisms, and we will have to make greater use of modified organisms in the future. Synthetic biology will thus gain a more important position in biotechnology.

Yassen asked about regulation of synthetic biology.

Nicolas said it was a complex area. He wanted to focus on two aspects:
  1. biosecurity
  2. the "ethical" aspects
In terms of biosecurity, there are various bad scenarios, such as a "mad scientist", accidental release, bioterrorism, et cetera. The good news is that from the beginning the field has been looked at seriously by government agencies. For example, it was not by chance that the FBI sponsored the recent SynBio 5.0 conference. And scientists have been aware of these concerns from the beginning.
He mentioned that there is a lot of hype, and we must realise how research is actually done. He noted that universities such as ours had risk assessments and containment levels; and most organisms used are not dangerous and cannot survive outside the lab.
As for "ethics", he mentioned the view that changing organisms was "the prerogative of God". This is a sort of theological concern but still needs to be addressed.
He mentioned the rights of modified organisms. This is not a concern when dealing with bacteria. But what about a genetically modified dog, cat, or even primate? Suddenly important questions arise.
He said it was good that scientists have, from the beginning, looked at "human practices". They have invited other people (ethicists and the general public) to debate these issues. Synthetic biology conferences always seem to have parts dedicated to safety and human aspects.

Yassen wondered whether the sort of synthetic biology stories that make headlines (such as the creation of glowing pets) hindered more normal synthetic biology projects.

Nicolas said maybe. There is a lag between research and regulations. This lag must not get too big. For glowing pets, perhaps they don't mind, but suppose a modification made them suffer?
[Note: glowing pets really exist, e.g. GloFish.]

Fionn asked whether regulation hindered research and the growth of synthetic biology.

Nicolas said regulations must strike the right balance. It is a very difficult balance. Furthermore, because regulations differ from country to country, research that is banned in one country will occur in others. He said that, for the sake of being able to combat bioterrorism and other problems, its best for a country to be at the leading edge of the research.

Yassen asked about the effect commercialisation has on science.

Nicolas said commercial potential leads naturally to an influx of funding, which is good.
He mentioned the conflict between "open source" approaches and patented approaches. Patents might block people from doing certain things. Again a balance is needed. Things must be commercialisable so that funding comes in. But people must not be allowed to just patent everything.

Fionn asked whether the motives of science become skewed due to commercialisation.

Nicolas said no. While commercialisation can lead to science becoming more focused on certain things (i.e. not researching interesting side projects) this focus can be helpful.

Yassen asked what (in general) would solve the world's environmental problems.

From an industrial point of view, the planning of industrial processes is important: knowing what waste to expect, for example. He said biological processes might help reduce the footprint of certain industries, using less energy or producing less waste.

Fionn mentioned that early attempts at making genetically modified foods produced a bad public reaction, due to companies mishandling things.

Nicolas said that there had been miscommunication and misunderstanding between industry and the public. This inhibited the development of GM in Europe. The good news about synthetic biology is that social scientists have been involved, thinking about the larger implications of synthetic biology, so hopefully the communication with the public has been, and will be, better.

Yassen asked what advice Nicolas would give to future synthetic biologists.

Nicolas said we should not lose our ethical perspective, but must balance it with thoughts about commercial potential.

Yassen asked how hard it would be, practically, to start a biorefinery in Scotland.

He said investors would only be interested if there was a new, outstanding process. Then perhaps venture capital funding would be forthcoming. Another option would be to partner with an industrial group. But it depends on how revolutionary the technology is.
Fionn asked what the government would think about it. Nicolas said the Scottish government would probably look on such a project favourably, both because of economic benefits and environmental benefits. He mentioned a company that had looked into something like a biorefinery; all that held it back was economic problems.

Graeme Reid; University of Edinburgh

Instruction of biology students at the University of Edinburgh is the responsibility of the Biology Teaching Organisation (BTO).

Graeme Reid trained as a biochemist. He is now Director of the BTO. He was interviewed in person by team members Allan Crossman and Fionn Tynan-O'Mahony.

Allan asked Graeme to tell us about his role as Director of Teaching.

Graeme said the BTO took in about 300 undergraduates a year, each starting a four-year course. There are also taught postgraduate programmes, the number of which are growing. His main work is overseeing undergraduate teaching. There are 126 courses run by the school, though a lot of these are 4th year courses [note: in 4th year, students specialise heavily, so each course has relatively few students]. The teaching staff is very diverse, teaching a lot of different areas.

Allan asked what the term "synthetic biology" really means.

Graeme said he'd never really understood what "synthetic biology" meant, but said it seemed like extreme genetic engineering. The whole idea is to make new organisms, but in reality you have to start from pre-existing organisms. Largely it involves making very major changes to genomes using genetic engineering.
Graeme mentioned the project to make the simplest possible bacterium [note: Mycoplasma laboratorium] where seemingly unnecessary genes are removed to see if it still survives; a bit like "extreme physiology" in olden days, when surgeons cut out organs to see if patients still survived. What can you do without?

Allan asked about the future of biotechnology. He asked whether pharmaceuticals are, and will be, the main application.

Graeme said that in the West, pharmaceuticals are the most economically significant area, but wasn't sure if this was true in the rest of the world. He mentioned food production as a significant area.
He noted that, some decades ago, there were fairly major advances in genetically modified foods, but the UK public wasn't ready to accept them, and the press overreacted to one piece of mass-deception by one particular company, and so it's never really been possible to reintroduce that technology. But in countries where food production is less secure than here, and as populations grow and it becomes harder to feed even the West, he expects the atmosphere to change significantly.

Fionn asked about this incident mentioned above.

Graeme said it was fairly clear that there were no massive safety issues, though some things were not known and could not be known until there were large scale field trials. But the scientific background suggested it was extremely unlikely there would be any health risks or safety issues. The one unknown was how genetically modified plants would interact with plants in the wild, but he said there were now plenty of examples to show that, globally, this is not a major issue.

Allan explained about Edinburgh's project, mentioning synergy between cellulases and our attempts to bring enzymes close together on a cell surface or M13 phage. He mentioned the possibility of creating biorefineries to take in cellulose and make fuel or foods, possibly for animal consumption.

Graeme said this sort of area, multi-enzyme complexes, was taking off when he was an undergraduate. Since cellulose breakdown is done in such complexes in nature, our project starts from a relatively secure background. The difficulty for the cell-display system would be getting enough enzymes produced to bring them close enough to make a difference. We might have a better chance on bacteriophage, since in principle we have more control, though it would require a lot of optimisation.
Allan suggested up to 100,000 proteins might be expressed on a cell surface, and wondered whether that would be enough. Graeme said it was a question of density, and suggested we do some modelling.

Allan asked how undergraduates should be taught about safety and ethical issues in biotechnology.

Graeme said the university doesn't address it in a very significant way until the student's final year. He noted that biologists generally are not specifically trained in bioethics, which is more of a social science issue. But at a research level there is now a huge amount of interaction between social scientists and biologists.
If needed, he said the approach would be to bring in somebody with expertise in these areas, because many of these areas are beyond the expertise of the core teaching staff. The core staff recognise what the issues are but are not experts, so don't really teach in those areas.
He said it was important for all science students to be aware of how science interacts with the rest of public life. He said this might be something universities are generally not very strong on.
Allan said that in his first three years as a student, it seemed that concepts of biosafety and broad ethical concerns were not strongly emphasised. Graeme pointed out that the instruction you receive depends on your precise field; biomedical students get more instruction in these areas; they may get taught about ethical issues surrounding stem cells, for example.
Graeme noted that a lot of issues are very new, because they only arise due to advanced science and technology. When these technologies are developed, the ethical issues aren't fully thought through. It's only recently that scientists have accepted there are major ethical issues that need to be debated. This debate can't just be done by scientists. In many cases scientists must hold up their hands and say "we can't determine if this is right or wrong".
The government seeks advice from scientists, and such advice is liberally given, but scientists don't always know what's right or wrong. Sometimes scientists get pilloried in the press for this. But for some questions, a scientist can only say "I don't know, and we have no way of knowing". The press and the public don't like this.
Fionn said everyone needs to think about how what they're doing impacts society.
Graeme said that 4th year honours students get to have debates about issues of a wider nature, including ethical issues. The Biotechnology Honours class make plans for hypothetical businesses, and ethical issues always arise. Sometimes getting people to role-play can be useful to get people thinking about others' points of view.

Fionn asked whether there was adequate emphasis on these issues in biology teaching.

Graeme said there was a growing awareness.

Allan asked how the law affects scientists in biotechnology and whether the level of regulation was appropriate.

Graeme said the law only impinges on very specific areas, though any genetic engineering at all has to be recorded and approved. There are different levels of safety requirements and different levels of risk, dealt with in different ways. Of least concern are experiments on disabled E. coli strains, for example using modified E. coli for the sake of producing a lot of some specific enzyme.
At the other extreme, there are genetically modified human cell cultures, and genetically modified animals. There are major controls here; any animal experiments require a Home Office license. Graeme has never needed one of these but many of his colleagues do; there are lots of animal experiments done. These clearly need to be controlled. Graeme said everyone involved recognises this.
As for plant modification, what's done in experimental systems is very different from what's done in the field. Everything has to be contained. He doubted anyone would dispute the need for legal control. Some of his colleagues find regulation an inconvenience due to the time it takes to deal with the paperwork, but it's just a fact of life.

Allan asked if these regulations strike the right balance between safety and allowing research to go forwards.

Graeme said that in this country, the regulations were pretty well informed. A lot of research is possible in this country that wouldn't be allowed in some other countries, but some things are not allowed here, which are allowed in the most liberal regimes. He said this suggests there was some sort of balance.
Allan wondered whether research might just go overseas if it had to. Graeme said it could, but if the UK thinks there are problems, particularly in human research, it might be better to set an example of not doing it here. Maybe it would go overseas, but maybe it wouldn't.

Fionn asked how funding and commercialisation affected the motives of science. Does it lead to hasty attempts to commercialise research, and does it affect what projects are done?

Graeme said there was some funding from industry but really it's incredibly little. He said the recession was partly to blame for this. But he noted that there is some research that is more easily done in a university than in industry, and gave an example where this led to funding: a model system was made in yeast by the university, and was later transplanted into plants by the company.
The research was not interfered with by the company, though there was constant contact. He said this was fairly basic research that the university might have done anyway. He said this is often the case; companies will approach universities to tap into expertise that already exists.
He said scientists are generally motivated by a desire for knowledge, though some are more entrepreneurial than others, and some are blissfully naive about the commercial world. And some have come into academic research having first worked in companies.
Graeme said drug companies are keen to develop interactions with universities, so as to get new ideas. But this is not the same as saying that they influence the basic research that goes on.
He said we should also think about what the government is trying to do. By and large the university is funded by government money. This is seen as an investment in the future. This investment demands some sort of return. This means making new products, and generating new income, though it doesn't matter whether it happens because academics spin out new companies, or because existing companies tap into academic research.
He said we should be careful before we think about "commerce" as a dirty word. He said there was a place for blue skies research, because it does end up being useful.
Attitudes among academics vary widely, and some are very keen to seek industrial collaboration. There is a strong push to do so from research councils and central government. The university gets more funding from the government on the basis of demonstrable interaction with commercial enterprises. This is called the Research Excellence Framework.

Allan asked what advice Graeme would have for future synthetic biologists.

"Get a good idea and see it through."

Patrick Harvie MSP; Scottish Green Party

The Scottish Green Party has 2 seats in the Scottish Parliament (out of 129 total). Its policies are focused on the environment and social justice.

Patrick Harvie is a Member of the Scottish Parliament (an MSP) for the Glasgow region, and co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party. He has been part of the parliament's Science and Technology Cross-Party Group. He was interviewed in person by team members Yassen Abbas and Allan Crossman.

Yassen asked Patrick about his role as co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party.

Patrick said the first part of his job, as MSP, is to represent the Glasgow people and argue for the manifesto commitments of the Green Party in the last election. As co-convenor of the Green Party he convenes the party's national council and helps develop the direction and policy of the party, though he stressed that this process involves many other people. He is also a member of the parliament's Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee.

Yassen asked about the Science and Technology Cross-Party Group.

The group was set up in the last parliamentary session. Cross-party groups have to be reestablished every session, so he didn't know yet whether the group would continue. But if enough members come together (on a cross-party basis) to set it up, Patrick said he would like to be part of it again.

Yassen asked what the term "synthetic biology" brings to mind.

Patrick said for most people it sounded like a term from science-fiction, and perhaps a bit scary. He said people would have some fears that are valid and some that are not valid. If people learn more about it, initial anxieties will be replaced by a deeper understanding.
He sees "synthetic biology" as an umbrella term for a range of scientific disciplines and techniques. Therefore, it gives rise to a very wide range of questions about the impact it will have on society, the environment, the economy, and people's lives. There is a wide range of potential applications, and the impacts will be both positive and negative.

Allan asked what role biotechnology would play in the future.

Patrick said it seems undeniable that biotechnology, and all the techniques biotechnology implies, will play a profound role in humanity's future. But it's unclear whether the net effect will be positive or negative. There will be both positive and negative aspects. Therefore, first we should minimise the risk of any negative consequences, and then think about the positive things that can be brought about.
He said if these technologies were the tools of very wealthy countries, and used at the expense of poorer developing countries, then this would cause a huge amount of concern. Likewise if they are the tools of powerful and wealth corporations. However, if the technologies can be part of the common good of humanity, and the ownership and control of them can be exercised for the common good of humanity, then there's much greater opportunity and lower risk.

Yassen explained our project, the degradation of cellulose, and the creation of a biorefinery to convert waste to food or fuel.

Patrick said the broad concept was exciting, and could have a role to play in the resource challenges that humanity is facing. He said he was frustrated that some politicians have been talking about these resource issues for many years, and proposing a more sustainable use of resources, but this hasn't been seen as a positive or exciting agenda.
Now we've reached the point where technical challenges have to be overcome. While he'd like to see technical developments taken forward that could make better use of "waste", he has a profound wish to see a more sustainable use of resources. For example, talking about waste, we must not create industries that are dependent on an ever-growing waste stream. We must reduce the amount of waste in our society.
He said this has a lot to do with regulation of industry and economics.

Yassen asked what questions an MSP would have for a group building a biorefinery in Scotland.

Patrick said any politician (regardless of party) would ask about the impact on people, the environment, and quality of life. What would the development look like? How much space would it take? How much economic activity and jobs would it generate? How viable is it? How secure an industry is it? Is it speculative or is there a strong business case? People would want to know about the impact on the local environment in terms of the industrial processes going on in the plant.
All developments have to occupy physical space, so we'd have to ask what use the community wants that space put to.

Yassen asked about any immediate concerns.

Patrick said he would need to know more about the specific proposal, and what it would imply in terms of consuming material and energy, and producing pollutants. He would also want to know what the local community's fears and anxieties were.
He said sometimes local people need an independent voice familiar with the subject: someone who's not a politician and not associated with the developer. Politicians are laypeople, not experts. If the community saw there was independent advice they could look at, that would help in persuading them to accept such a project.

Yassen asked what reaction constituents would have to a biorefinery.

Patrick said the reaction would be mixed. It's hard to take a position without further details.
As well as the factors mentioned above, he added that we should consider the aesthetic impact, and whether the jobs created would go to local people or people from outside the local community. If a community is going to give over part of its space to any development, from whatever industry, the community needs to gain something in exchange for the loss of its space, especially if this is high quality green space.

Yassen asked whether the Science and Technology Cross-Party Group has assessed the potential of synthetic biology.

Patrick said it hadn't really come up. If particular developments or projects come along, most politicians would want to take things on a case by case basis, and understand the specifics rather than immediately taking a general view.

Allan asked if the group has discussed genetic modification more generally.

Patrick said all parties have discussed GM, and there is a wide range of views, but there is a majority view in the Scottish Parliament against the commercial use of GM agriculture. His own opposition to this is based on the economics: the control of the food chain by a small, powerful clique of multinational companies; this is also a concern for existing conventional agriculture. He is also concerned about the impact on small farmers, both in this country and developing countries.
He said the way patent law was applied to genetics, and the structure of ownership of intellectual property, ought to be changed. Then there would be room in the political landscape for a wider debate about risks and benefits. But for the time being, he expects continuing opposition to commercial use of GM in agriculture.

Allan asked if people are more comfortable with GM organisms that produce pharmaceuticals.

Patrick said there is less anxiety about GM techniques in the "lab", for research or production of drugs, that don't impact the real world in terms of biodiversity.
Allan mentioned the distinction between "contained use" versus GM "in the field". Patrick said either case always requires a degree of careful thought. We can't simply say everything science does is wonderful, or terrible.

Yassen asked what regulation Patrick wanted to see.

Patrick said nobody should be in a position where they eat GM food without knowing about it. It should be clearly labelled.
He said gene patents are a hard area for a small country like Scotland to deal with. We need a wider approach at the European and global level. The Scottish Green Party doesn't currently have any Members of the European Parliament, so can't really contribute to the European debate.

Yassen asked what approaches could solve the world's environmental problems.

Patrick said that some scientific and technology techniques will be absolutely crucial for humanity's ability to get through the next few decades of dangerous resource constraints (especially fossil fuels) as well as the impact we are having around us (climate change, loss of biodiversity and habitats).
However, he said technology can only help us achieve long-term sustainability if we change the way we live. Fundamentally, we must change our economics. Our current economic system has caused these problems. Desperately "fire-fighting" the effects with science and technology is not a viable survival strategy; we need to stop doing the harm. Science and technology will help us fix the harm we've already done, but if we only try the "techno-fix", without changing our behaviour (which he said is causing an ecological crisis like none ever seen before), then we won't succeed. Science and technology are not enough to see us through.

Yassen asked what advice Patrick would give to future synthetic biologists.

Patrick said he wouldn't presume to give advice, but he would hope people working in any new branch of technology think not just about solving the challenges they face in their work, but ask what impact their work will have on people and the world we share.
What impact will it have on inequality in our society? What impact will it have on human wellbeing, not just in a direct way, but in indirect ways? How will it impact on the relationships between people? If we ignore those aspects of what it means to be human, and we still come up with clever technologies, the benefits will not be as great, and the downsides may be unexpectedly large.

Armin Grunwald

Amongst other things, Armin is a philosopher of technology. This interview was conducted by email.

You seem to do many things, from directing the Buro fur Technokfolgen-Abschatzung (Office for Technological Assessment) and the KIT's Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis to being a philosopher and ethicist. What does your typical day involve? Do you have a typical day?

I have a typical distribution of presence over the week. Monday and Tuesday are typical days at Karlsruhe (ITAS and university, colloquium, lectures, internal and external committees etc.), Wednesday is a typical Berlin day, and Thursday/Friday are "on demand" (project meetings, external lectures, EU meetings, meetings at ministries etc.). Of course there are many exceptions because of certain requests. My "office days" (Monday to Wednesday) are full of meetings of different scale, reaching from institute plenary meetings to supervising PhD students of talking to individual researchers. My research (reading, thinking, preparing papers and books etc.) usually takes place in Deutsche Bahn (German railway). I try to avoid short distance flights and prefer railway because it provides an excellent opportunity for working without disturbances (5 hours Berlin - Karlsruhe).

When you hear the term Synthetic Biology what do you think of?

First the idea of creating artificial life comes into my mind (knowing well that at the moment SB is more on technically modifying existing life instead of creating new life from scratch). This thought is related with fascination and concern simultaneously.

What role, if any, do you think biotechnology will play in the future?

I am convinced that SB will be key to many innovative developments in the future. I see SB as an emerging "enabling technology" which will lead to applications in (probably many) different sectors. Main application fields might be, seen from now:
  • health and medicine
  • energy
  • new materials for different purposes

We are currently working on a project that will use an engineered strain of E. coli to increase the synergistic effect of enzymes. As a proof of concept we will attempt to use this system with 3 enzymes that are associated with the degradation of cellulose, namely; endoglucanase, exoglucanase and B-glucosidase. One of the possible applications of this system (synergistic breakdown of cellulose) is the creation of a biorefinery. We envisage the possibility of taking waste (such as agriculture and paper-waste) and converting it into products found in food such as sweeteners and vitamins.

What is your immediate reaction to this?

Spontaneously I am absolutely positive about this. Biorefineries will be a key element of meeting future challenges and approaching more sustainability. However, I am not able to assess whether it is promising for modifications of E. coli.

As the director of the Office of Technological Assessment at the German Bundestag, what questions would you have for us with regards this application?

a. Would you have any immediate concerns?
b. If, hypothetically, a bio-refineries network was to be implemented, what regulations, if any, do you think would need to be put in place?

(a) It is not a joke: my office has been requested to work on a study on SB some months ago. Work is in progress. In case of interest please contact Dr Arnold Sauter working at TAB. Concerning your project: E. coli are, as far as I know as a non-biologist, not welcome in many areas of human life. My immediate concerns would affect possible release of modified E. coli with new properties to the Environment not knowing about possible impacts and side-effects (a typical bio-safety issue).
(b) It depends on the knowledge about possible side effects as well as about hazard and damage scenarios which will be available at that time. According to the state of knowledge and the degree of uncertainty and ignorance different risk management strategies should be applied. Probably, the Precautionary Principle (which was established in the EU at the occasion of GMO) will have to be applied. It allows and requests precautionary measures in a broad range with different degree of intervention, depending on the degree of evidence of risk. In any case, careful monitoring of possible side effects will be necessary, accompanied by continuous assessment of the knowledge available.

What role, if any, do you think Synthetic Biology should play in how we source our food?

With view to the rejection of GMO food in many European countries, and assuming that SB will even stronger intervene into organisms used for food production compared to classical genetics I guess that it will take a long time until SB products could be used for food production. A lot of research on possible side effects will be necessary to create trust and acceptance (at least in Europe).

The field of Synthetic Biology poses a large ethical dilemma surrounding the potential risk it poses vs. the potential benefit it promises. Considering your directorial roles and your background in philosophy, what are your thoughts on this?

Are the potential consequences of Synthetic Biology too great for it to become a mainstream technological innovation?

I do not think so. Arguments in this direction such as the "Playing God" argument or the "hubris" concern are not valid ethical arguments but rather expressions of concerns, uneasiness, uncertainty etc. which are typical elements of the perception of new and emerging technological fields. Usually they disappear in later stages of research & development and transform into more "down to Earth" concerns which can be tackled by different types of risk assessment and management.

In general, what approaches do you think could help solve the world's environmental problems?

Is sustainability a technological issue?

In this radical formulation no. Sustainability needs much better technology but technology is only part of the game. Without regarding other (social) issues such as consumer behaviour, adequate political boundary conditions, incentives etc. the technological progress (more efficiency) could be compensated by "rebound effects".

If you were to give some advice to future Synthetic Biologists, what would it be?

Be active in public debate and contribute to it based on your expert knowledge. Think positive about SB but communicate remaining uncertainties in an open and frank way. Avoid "overselling" SB.