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Current Activities of the Online Forum on Synthetic Biology

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SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY & RISK [#8788]
My appreciation to Benson Kinyagia for moderating this discussion and to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) for its ongoing pursuit of the challenges of synthetic biology.

As a retired public health physician trained in epidemiology, I believe it is especially appropriate that this UN convention has taken on the issues of the governance of synthetic biology.

We ought to step back and consider the precarious state of the world.  We are living in the 6th (ever) mass extinction that earth has seen.  We have been slow to react to accelerating climate change. Many of the world’s people suffer the loss of drinking water and of healthy topsoil.  The increasing acidification and overfishing of the oceans threatens the seafood that oceans provide.  This world-class emergency is generated by our unsustainable patterns of consumption. Yet we ignore this emergency. So, I believe that any policy issues that come before the CBD should address these and related profound threats to biodiversity, ecosystems and species, including us.

The world leader who has spoken most comprehensively and most courageously on the state of the world is Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the environment: Link:[ https://laudatosi.com/ ] Each of his comments are brief and powerful.  I would encourage each member of the AHTEG to at least read at least these 26 of his 200+ commentaries:  10, 11, 22, 25, 28, 35, 42, 48, 49, 54, 67, 82, 104, 107-9, 115, 130, 141, 144, 160, 169, 182, 186, 197, 200.  In the interests of full disclosure, I have no personal connection to Catholicism.

I participate in the AHTEG as a representative of the Canadian Friends (Quakers) Service Committee, which has maintained an active interest in biotechnology for more than two decades (for CFSC's recent work regarding synthetic biology, see: Link [ http://quakerservice.ca/our-work/peace/synthetic-biology/# ] Quakers share some key values that move them to strong positions on synthetic biology:  simplicity-which leads to minimizing consumption of resources; equality-which leads to a strong social justice perspective that seeks fair sharing of the earth's bounty; community-which also leads to care and sharing among people and across species; peace (Quakers have often been conscientious objectors to war; their concerns re bio-weapons and bio-terrorism, as suggested earlier in this discussion, are best referred to other international bodies).

With this background, I will address (paraphrased) questions:  1 & 2...extent to which current risk management measures & best practices in the use of LMOs, components and practices are sufficient;  3...foresee a need for adapting existing safety measures in the future of synthetic biology;  5...specific new areas of research need to ensure safe use in current and near future;  6...Guidelines & guidance in managing the risks of synthetic biology.

Risk assessment and risk management of genetic engineering and synthetic biology have been focused on issues of safety--direct harm to researchers, developers, producers, and the public.  Attention to indirect risks (like the economic impacts of a developed application) have not been a regular part of risk assessment.  But given the relatively short history of synthetic biology, a matter of decades, and the amazing acceleration of its development (eg, see the first slide of
Link [ https://osp.od.nih.gov/wp-content/uploads/Session_IV_Talk_Adelman.pdf ], the current means of addressing risk are likely to be, or soon be, inadequate. 

The following comments have been aided by a report from Lloyd's, a corporation particularly concerned with managing risk:
Link [ https://www.lloyds.com/~/media/25352cf96fee4a8fb28f4ab1746f58ac.ashx ] (Please see "Suggested Actions" in the last pages of the report):

1) It would be useful for those concerned with synthetic biology to attempt to forecast future (near, mid-term, long-term) developments in synthetic biology and to consider and publicly inventory the risks the might be associated with those developments.  (regarding the necessary involvement of the public, see Link [ http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-science-can-t-solve-it-1.17806 ] .

2) Similarly, we should be mapping out uncertainties of current applications (both genetic engineering and synthetic biology).

3) Policy-makers, developers, researchers and the public should have available evidence-based studies on how policy regarding synthetic biology has affected the field's development and the management of its risks.

4) In addition to assessing the risks of current and future applications of synthetic biology, there should be planning for the management of unintended consequences (especially in relation to the CBD, ecological impacts).

5) Focus groups of all stakeholders and surveys of the public should be ongoing regarding understanding of issues and attitudes towards policy options.


Regarding further guidance on the global ecological/social emergencies noted initially, I would ask:

A.  What are the implications of any proposed (and where appropriate, current) applications of synthetic biology in regard to:
     1.  aggravating or reducing the present excessive consumption of resources and of biodiversity; and
     2.  potential positive and negative impacts on cultural and social-justice issues, with particular attention to indigenous and economically-underprivileged communities?

B.  What measures and methods will those developing the applications and those involved in the governance of synthetic biology use to assess the impacts noted in A. above?

I look forward to the further consideration of these issues in the CBD's continuing attention to synthetic biology.
posted on 2017-10-01 03:55 UTC by Dr Frederic Bass, self-employed