POST (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) is a UK office tasked with providing information for both the House of Commons and House of Lords. It allows all members of the UK parliament to make the most informed choice when it comes to voting on policy and law. POST does this, in part, by publishing POSTnotes--short documents which summarise a complex topic.
One goal of POST is to be proactive about information gathering. So that, developments on the horizons of science and technology, are accounted for when the government wished or needs to become involved in these areas. To that end POST published, in May, a note on the Regulation of Synthetic Biology.
Authored by Louise Connell and Peter Border, the short report first gives a background on Synthetic Biology as a field. It talks about synthetic biology as first, developing tools enabling computational design, genome editing, DNA synthesis and sequencing. It also introduces the core principle of standardisation. It then speaks to efforts to use these technologies for various applications, including metabolic engineering, creating protocells and xenobiology. The report goes on to detail current products of synthetic biology such as artemisinin and vanillin. Finally they introduce the potential for environmental, ethical, legal and societal issues to be raised by synthetic biology.
The meat of the report focuses on regulation as it currently stands and potential areas where there isn’t any regulation into which synthetic biology can fit. Currently synthetic biology is treated much the same way genetic modification has always been treated by the EU. Work is evaluated based on whether it is for lab/contained use or if it is a deliberate environmental release. This could be potentially problematic for some projects which fall between these two directives. The example they give is an environmental biosensor which is contained both physically and biologically. Before environmental release novel organisms are compared to wild-type organisms. As synthetic biology advances, it may be difficult to do this as there may be no wild strain similar to a completely artificial one developed in a lab. And finally, there is concern that, with a rapid growth in the range and complexity of technology, it will be impossible to evaluate every project on a case-by-case basis. The report mentions the difference between the EU system and that used in the USA and Canada and mentions the recommendation by the The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee to move to a trait-based regulation system as used in North America.
Synthetic Biology will become a booming area of research. So much so that the recently elected Conservative government picked it as one of the ‘8 great technologies’ in their manifesto, pledging to direct more funding towards it. With an increase in research it is more important than ever that policy and regulation is in place to protect people and the environment while fostering a system in which the best work can be done. Well informed policy makers and politicians are a key to this. This POST summary is not only well written, researched and thoughtful but may be influential to informing regulation affecting synthetic biology in the future.
Oscar is a microbiology graduate and founding member of the University of Reading iGEM team.
Edited by: Devang Mehta
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