Biological machines? Anticipating developments in synthetic biology

Policy reports | 25.09.2008 | CGM/080925-01

Synthetic biology is a new research field that seeks to modify existing organisms to perform useful functions and to design and synthesise artificial genes and complete biological systems.  By unravelling the functioning of living cells step by step and using this knowledge to construct artificial cell components, researchers hope eventually to be able to create a completely artificial cell. This could be considered to be a living machine. Synthetic biology can therefore be described as a further stage in the development of genetic modification. It is no surprise that the emergence of synthetic biology has reignited the cycle of public debate that flared up during the initial stages of genetic modification.
COGEM published an initial report on this matter in 2006. Over the last two years media attention and the number of scientific papers on the topic have risen rapidly. Scientists and others have been speculating in the media about future developments, sometimes conjuring up visions of the most fantastic applications; others warn of the possible consequences of this new and groundbreaking technology. The media has played host to an exchange of ‘dream’ and ‘doom’ scenarios.
In response to this media interest and to parliamentary questions, the Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment (VROM) asked COGEM for further advice. This included questions about whether the current risk analysis method and the assessment framework for GMOs will be suitable assessing future developments in synthetic biology. The minister also enquired about how government can best facilitate the public debate on synthetic biology.
In the report Biological machines? Anticipating developments in synthetic biology COGEM provides an answer to these questions.

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