Press Release 13/2011

The German Ethics Council opens the debate on the potential applications and risks of synthetic biology to the public in Mannheim

Yesterday (Wednesday), some three hundred attendees accepted the German Ethics Council’s invitation to join its members in the Great Hall of the University of Mannheim for a whole-day public meeting with German and international experts on the significance of synthetic biology for science and society.

Synthetic biology is a comparatively young field of research that combines elements of molecular biology, biotechnology, engineering sciences and information technology to form a new discipline, in which biological systems are considered more in terms of engineering and reduced to their smallest functional units. Models for the design of modified or newly developed biological systems are constructed in this way.

After an introduction to the principal fields of synthetic biology and their potential applications, the speakers discussed the fascination aroused by this area of research in science, the media and art. They also considered the possibility of the creation of artificial life by the relevant techniques, as a result of which man would set himself up as Homo creator. The last point to be addressed was the extent to which the expectations aroused by synthetic biology, for instance in terms of the development of medicinal products and biofuels or the degradation of environmental pollutants, were realistic.

During the course of the meeting it emerged clearly that what was novel in synthetic biology was the design and construction of life; however, this did not constitute a scientific revolution, while the nature of the associated risks was also not new. Even so, this developing field of research merited public attention and ethical consideration. Yet the debate must not be dominated by hopes of economic gain or media impact, but had to be conducted on the basis of real advances in techniques and of realistic expectations for the future.

The demands expressed included transparent interdisciplinary research in the field of synthetic biology, accompanying scientific and ethical research, and monitoring by society. Current and planned projects were evaluated by the Zentrale Kommission für Biologische Sicherheit (Central Committee on Biological Safety, ZKBS) with a view to identifying possible hazards to humans, animals and the environment as early as possible and to determining where limits of application should be drawn.

The ensuing discussions were concerned mainly with safety risks – in particular, hazards associated with a possible release or misuse of synthetic organisms.

Audio recordings of the individual contributions can be accessed here.

Transcripts will be available on the same site in due course.