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Building the Trust Infrastructure for Synthetic Biology

Jurassic World. Orphan Black. Splice. Helix.

Synthetic biology is the inspiration behind these and many other popular science fiction movies and television series, and it seems that the public cannot get enough of them. While these stories provide entertainment with their extreme scenarios, more importantly, they are also raising critical issues around the moral and ethical implications of modifying and/or creating life.

And as we get closer to dropping the “fiction” from “science fiction”, everyone needs to be a part of this conversation.

dna-163466_640Genome engineering technologies have advanced to the point that we are creating synthetic genomes for bacteria and yeast, and have the ability to re-engineer the human germline using Crispr/Cas9 editing technology. These technologies offer highly innovative and sustainable solutions to many global challenges, including healthcare, agriculture, chemicals, and bioremediation.

But does the public trust that these technologies will be used for the betterment of science and humanity? How far are we willing to go as a society to realize the promise? Do the potential benefits outweigh the risks?

Today, the public remains largely unaware that synthetic biology is no longer just a plot in a science fiction story. So before these conversations can begin, the scientific community must first drive awareness of these technologies and build a foundation of trust.

Trust can only be earned in a long-term process of transparency, engagement, and addressing concerns before they arise. The scientific community needs to talk about what they are doing and why, and for what potential benefits to the public.

And the public needs to have a voice.

The biotechnology industry faced a similar challenge at its inception in the 1980s, and with FKH’s help, successfully informed and engaged the public. Today, the biopharmaceutical is an integral part of healthcare – and the lessons learned back then are very relevant today.

Together with Nancy J Kelley + Associates (NK&A), FKH is galvanizing the synthetic biology community towards greater public engagement. NK&A recently co-organized a number of meetings designed to bring this emerging community, and we are at the table to discuss strategies for building the trust infrastructure and creating a dialogue with the world (Engineering Biology for Science and Industry: April 2015 meeting report; July 2015 meeting agenda).

We also co-hosted a media roundtable on synthetic biology at the Fourth Annual Sc2.0 and Synthetic Genomes Conference, which was very well attended. In the spirit of transparency and engagement, this roundtable did not involve prepared talks designed to tell the press what scientists wanted them to hear. Instead we invited press to come armed with their most pressing questions for Dr. Jef Boeke and his colleagues who are leading efforts to design a yeast genome. The topics ranged from initial applications to the potential risk of synthetic yeast escaping into the wild.

We invite you to read some initial coverage that directly or indirectly resulted from this meeting: GENS; New York Times; Mercury News.

We are just at the beginning of a long road. A communications strategy is needed for the entire field, with coordinated effort, to help inform the public, stimulate a national dialogue, and overcome the misperceptions that will inevitably arise. Moreover, such a strategy will have to be consistent, long-term, and woven into the entire synthetic biology ecosystem. It is going to be fascinating journey and FKH looks forward to continued partnership with leaders in the community in support of these efforts.