Synthetic biology is emerging as a powerful new approach to assembling organisms and quasi-biological systems from their component parts, potentially producing many of the things we need for our complex society (such as energy, food, drugs and engineering materials) in a far less energy-intensive and a more flexible way than present-day industrial processes. Many scientists and technologists see it as a revolution as great as synthetic chemistry in the 19th century and the 20th century information and communications technologies. Some argue it is the ultimate goal of all biology; the ability not only to understand the natural world but to design a new set of entities (not necessarily organisms as we know them) modelled on biological systems but designed using engineering principles.
Synthetic biology is a raft of new scientific and computational techniques, but it is also a culture change involving biologists, engineers, computer scientists, chemists and, importantly, professional ethicists. The new synthetic biology centre at University College London, Synbion,1 has social scientists and ethicists embedded with the scientific teams. This may seem a novel idea but perhaps not; there have always been social scientists and ethicists interested in scientific discovery and technology, and ‘cutting edge’ scientists have long been aware of what ethical and societal issues might flow from what they produce.
It is perhaps surprising that funding agencies and researchers have shown such interest in societal issues before synthetic biology science has produced a single commercial product. This early interest produces a bit of a problem; we need to understand more about public reactions to this new area, but how can we identify societal and ethical issues associated with a set of technologies unless there are tangible products?
As a step towards meeting this challenge, the UK science funding bodies BBSRC and EPSRC have commissioned an expert group to consider early-stage issues and to begin a public dialogue on synthetic biology. From earlier academic work,2,3 they already know what some of these issues may be, but now is the time to go to wider society to ask the publics to frame the issues and debate the concerns.
The research councils know that new technologies almost always produce generic concerns about safety and regulation, ownership and intellectual property rights.
They have also seen that science aimed at assembling new life and life-like systems is likely to give rise to specific concerns such as whether scientists have rights to create new life forms; whether boundaries between living and non-living entities actually exist and if so, whether they may be blurred by synthetic biology. There could also be an aversion to some synthetic biology products simply because they may be unfamiliar, for example organisms that bear little resemblance to anything in farming and the natural world.
These concerns may produce challenges to social morals and ethics far greater than those posed by the GM issue, and some developments will doubtless be viewed as potentially dangerous and unethical. On the other hand biological novelty may be valuable in terms of what novel organisms can do for us, and may prove aesthetically attractive.
In fact, like all new technologies, developments in synthetic biology are far from predictable. Other than some science fiction writers, nobody predicted that the invention of computers would lead to a revolution in human communications and the organisation of society, and nobody foresaw the ethical issues that might stem from that. BBSRC and EPSRC are trying to take early steps into this new world and to understand some of the societal responses to synthetic biology. A tall order perhaps, but one needed as early as possible in emergent technologies, this time refreshingly led by the scientific community.
2 Balmer A and Martin P 2008 Synthetic Biology; Social and Ethical Challenges available from http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/ces5/default.aspx?q=synthetic+biology 
3 Royal Academy of Engineering 2009 Synthetic Biology: Scope, Applications and Implications available from http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/Local%20Settings/Temporary%20Internet%20Files/OLK19E/www.raeng.org.uk/synbio