Scientific opinions needed for CBD documents on synthetic biology

This article by EUSynBioS staff writer Josephine Buerger looks at recent documents prepared by the Convention on Biological Diversity. The EUSynBioS Steering Committee urges members and partner organisations to review these documents to reflect scientific opinion. The documents can be found at www.cbd.int/emerging 

 

Call for contributions from synthetic biologists by August 13th

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is a treaty created in 1992 to promote biodiversity, highlight the interplay between politics and environment, and raise awareness on an international scale. Each country that ratifies the Convention plays an active role in shaping its official stance, so the CBD is uniquely situated between governments and grassroot movements and directly impacts legislation, biodiversity, and conservation. The EU, in addition to one hundred and ninety-five nations (excepting the United States) are parties to the CBD.

An important initiative of the Convention is to apprehend “new and emerging issues” within the scientific community. Within a public context, the CBD has prepared two extensive documents outlining the impact of synthetic biology on conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. These documents provide a detailed account of the benefits, hazards, and research breakthroughs generated by the manipulation of genomic information; examples range from bacterial genome shuffling to utilising bats as synthetic vaccine carriers. The initiative’s statements cover some well-discussed aspects of bioethical discourse: the potential threat of releasing genetically modified organisms into fragile ecosystems, the danger of hazardous mutations arising within synthetic strains, or the misuse of open-source knowledge for bioterror activity.

Issues pointed out by multiple reviewers include lack of clarity regarding terms such as “synthetic biology” and “genetic engineering” or the difference between a self-replicating plasmid versus a genetically modified live organism

The CBD documents point out the disparity between the synthetic biology of pop-science and the reality of creating genetically modified organisms in a laboratory setting. It emphasises that scaremongering does not procure productive interactions between scientists, the public, and interest groups, and should be avoided.

The summary presented by the CBD also highlights future complexities that merit discussion. For example, “de-extinction”, i.e. reconstructing genomes of lost species, is a crowd-pleaser, yet the CBD points out that such “sci-fi science” could ultimately diminish funds available for ongoing conservation projects. Second-generation biofuels have huge energy potential, yet the biomass requirement may propagate an exploitative trade-off between technology and nature reserves. The production of pharmaceuticals or chemicals using cell factories could displace economies dependent on agriculture. Synthetic biology has the power to transform our world - but transformation begets complexity.


The documents as prepared by the Convention have already been subject to two rounds of peer-review. Preceding the 12th Conference of the CBD, an additional round of peer-review has been requested and previous comments from funding bodies and research groups are available for inspection. The comments published so far praise the comprehensive nature of the documents, but criticisms have also arisen. Issues pointed out by multiple reviewers include lack of clarity regarding terms such as “synthetic biology” and “genetic engineering” or the difference between a self-replicating plasmid versus a genetically modified live organism. Funding applications and ethical guidelines may adopt the CBD’s definitions in the future. Though such terms can be contentious even between experts, it is important that the CBD documents utilise nuanced terminology to reflect the complexity of extant research.

Finally, a repeated criticism towards the CBD documents is their tendency to over-interpret views presented within the literature. Bioethicists have published on the nature of risk posed by synthetic biology in a highly abstract manner which may or may not reflect actual risks, yet this is not made clear in the summaries. In addition, comments point out that claims from scientific articles are used in an incorrect context. The distinction between data from peer-reviewed papers and opinions prepared by parties with vested interest is not presented clearly which at times paints a biased picture of the field.

The current peer-review process is open to all contributors and a number of groups have stepped forward with strong views against the technology of synthetic biology. As the CBD documents aim to provide an unbiased overview of the field, all reviews may be incorporated into the body of text. Amongst the commenters so far, researchers of synthetic biology and related fields are under-represented.  It is imperative that opinions grounded in scientific fact balance out the views presented thus far, especially in light of the criticisms already emerging against the potential mis-representation of journal articles as well as the future impact of the CBD documents.

The final round of peer-review will end on August 13th.  The official CBD statement on synthetic biology and risk recommendations will set a strong precedent for future policy. This is a unique opportunity for research groups to step forward, contribute their expertise, and help shape the language which will determine the future of the field.


Written by:

Josephine Buerger

Josephine is a postgraduate student at Imperial College London with an avid interest in synthetic biology and metabolic engineering, as well as their impact on scientific research and public outreach. Find her on twitter 

Edited by: Devang Mehta

Disclaimer: Views and opinions expressed in EUSynBioS Pulse articles belong solely to the writer(s). They do not reflect the opinion of the Community, the Advisory Board or the Steering Committee