Context - SynBio uses faster and easier methods for producing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
What could be the potential risks of synthetic biology?
GreenFacts was contracted to prepare this summary by the DG Health and Food Safety, which authorised its publication. See this publication on europa.eu .
Latest update: 15 August 2015
The field of Synthetic Biology (SynBio) is a
biotechnology full of exciting
possibilities, from adapting crops to thrive in barren lands to growing new
organs to save the lives of transplant recipients. And yet all unexplored
scientific territories may pose
potential risks, which is why the
Scientific Committees have scientific Opinions on SynBio from definition to
potential risks to public health and to
determining the type of risk-related
research that needs to be done in this field.
What is SynBio?
SynBio, as defined in Opinion I is ‘the application of science, technology
and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the design, manufacture and/or
modification of genetic materials in
living organisms.’ In other words, SynBio uses faster and easier
methods for producing genetically modified
organisms (GMOs) by adding or removing
genes from an organism, or assembling
modular genetic elements and creating one
from scratch. The principal purpose of defining SynBio is to assist the
identification of processes or products that might require a substantial change
risk assessment and
What are the applications of SynBio?
SynBio aims to design biological systems that do not exist in nature, or to
re-design existing principles to better understand or improve life processes.
There are SynBio applications already in use, such as
yeasts that produce
or the malaria drug,
artemisinin. SynBio is still a
young field, having emerged at the dawn of the 2stcentury, and
applications for the pharmaceutical, chemical, agricultural, and
energy sectors are growing.
Are the hazards and risks related to SynBio activities well evaluated?
The scope of the Opinions is for the foreseeable future (10 years) and
currently, the existing methods of risk
assessment for GMOs and chemicals are applicable; however, new SynBio
developments may require adapting existing methods for
Are there issues specific to SynBio that could emerge?
Challenges in assessing SynBio risks are
foreseeable and include the integration of modified
cells into/with living organisms;
future developments of autonomous modified cells; use of non-standard
biochemical systems in living
cells; increased speed of modifications by new technologies and an evolving
‘Do-it-Yourself Biology’ among the citizen science
community. However, these can be
managed by combinations of strict safety
approaches including SynBio safety locks, like
genetic firewalls and genetic kill
switches to ensure biosafety risks.
This fact sheet is based on the Opinions by the Scientific Committees on
Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR), on Health and Environmental
Risks (SCHER), and on Consumer Safety (SCCS): “Opinion on Synthetic Biology I -
Definition” and “Opinion on Synthetic Biology II- Risk assessment methodologies and
safety aspects”, June 2015