News

Critical thinking and responsive engagement key to responsible progress in synthetic biology

13 November 2018
The interdisciplinary discussed key issues and the potential future of mammalian cell synthetic biology.
The Designed to Order Interdisciplinary workshop, hosted by University of Melbourne’s Centre for Stem Cell Systems and the Melbourne Law School, was held at the end of October and sought to begin a conversation around mammalian cell synthetic biology. 

Science has now progressed to a stage where we may soon be able to redesign our own biology. Through understanding the componentry within our cells, it may be possible to rewrite our biological blueprint and design human cells with new functions, or even cells not seen in nature. This is the potential future of mammalian cell synthetic biology. 

The event brought together a mix of scholars and stakeholders to consider the social goods that synthetic biology technologies should aspire to achieve, and the cross-disciplinary and governance practices and processes required to responsibly enable progress. 

Synthetic biology is the design and construction of novel DNA based biological parts, devices, systems, machines and organisms to address needs in human health, the environment or agriculture. As such, future synthetic biology technologies have vast potential to solve globally significant problems. 

Global growth and investment in synthetic biology is rapidly increasing. The Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) recently published a report - Synthetic Biology in Australia: An outlook to 2030 – that reviewed opportunities across areas critical to Australia. The Report also explored concerns raised by the technology, highlighting the importance of an adaptable and responsive regulatory system to guide responsible advancement.

Some scholars have claimed that synthetic biology will be the dominant technology of the 21st century. Others have cautioned that how this technology develops, in what form, and for whose benefit are questions that require open and ongoing public debate and deliberation from the outset. 

The presentations and discussions from the Designed to Order event showcased the need for a novel research and public engagement approach for this to be achieved: one able to pair ambition with humility so that ethical and moral questions of value, investment and social good, rather than market potential, guide progress and innovation. Such an approach will also require the support of and genuine engagement between researchers, government and regulatory bodies and the publics likely to be impacted by synthetic biology technologies. 

Building interdisciplinary teams, engaging with and being responsive to different point of views and thinking critically about what the pressing issues are that mammalian cell synthetic biology could and should address as the technology develops are all key to responsible progress in synthetic biology. The Designed to Order workshop is a sound first step in the right direction. 

Designed to Order – An interdisciplinary workshop was hosted by the Centre for Stem Cell Systems and Melbourne Law School and supported through funding from a University of Melbourne Dyason Fellowship Grant.

The event was organised by Dr Claire Tanner, A/Prof Megan Munsie, A/Prof Mark Taylor, Prof Rachel Ankeny, Prof Joan Leach and Dr Alison McLennan.

Associate Professor Megan Munsie is a Chief Investigator at Stem Cells Australia; Dr Claire Tanner and Associate Professor Claudia Vickers are Associate Investigators. Megan is the Head of  the Engagement, Ethics and Policy Program.