November 4, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich
Synthetic biology comes to Nottingham (ESRC Festival of Social Science)
On Monday we are convening a public debate about synthetic biology and responsible research and innovation as part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science. You are all welcome to join us! Us means: Adam Rutherford as chair, Hilary Sutcliffe, Andrew Balmer, Klaus Winzer and Peter Licence on the panel (see brochure) and myself as organiser. (Lakeside Arts/Djanogly Art Gallery, Lecture theatre A30)
Eventbrite page – for free tickets.
What is synthetic biology? There have been many definitions but the one we used on the website of the Synthetic Biology Research Centre here at the University of Nottingham is the following one: “Synthetic Biology has the potential to create new products and processes by engineering biological systems to perform new functions in a modular, reliable and predictable way, allowing modules to be reused in different contexts.”
Synthetic biology: Up on Mars
What does this mean concretely? I think the best way of making abstract synthetic biology concrete might actually be to look up into the heavens, in particular at Mars. Synthetic biology has recently been drafted into ‘space science’ and visions of future missions to Mars. As people know, going to Mars is difficult, as astronauts and, even more so, future (futuristic) settlers would need a sustainable flow of foods, materials and medicines which cannot all be taken ‘up there’ in one go. So scientists are thinking about creating, indeed, engineering, foods, fuels, plastics, and medicines ‘biologically’ using synthetic biology. One such proposition can be found in an article by Amor Menezes for the journal Interface published by the Royal Society and entitled “Towards synthetic biological approaches to resource utilization on space missions”. In a recent post about this article for the blog ‘Berkeley Engineer’ it has been pointed out that: “The researchers identified microbes that can be engineered to convert gases from the Martian atmosphere or a spacecraft’s waste stream into useful supplies. A methane-oxygen fuel blend can be produced by harnessing Methanobacterium thermoautotrophicum, a single-celled organism common in sewage treatment plants and hot springs; cyanobacteria, such as Arthrospira or Synechocystis, can make spirulina food or the painkiller acetaminophen; and construction-grade biopolymers needed for 3-D printing replacement parts can be engineered from a soil bacteria, Cupriavidus necator.”
Synthetic biology: Down in Nottingham
What has this to do with us here down on earth? Quite a lot actually! Take Cupriavidus. The aim of many projects within the SBRC here in Nottingham is to use this and other bacteria for the production of chemicals, pharmaceuticals or enzymes which are needed for sustainable and biotechnology focussed industries here on Earth.
This means, as explained on our SBRC’s website: “The Nottingham SBRC will use Synthetic Biology to engineer microorganisms that can be used to manufacture the molecules and fuels that modern society needs in a cleaner and greener way. We will harness the ability of organisms, to ‘eat’ single-carbon containing gases, such as carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). When these gases are injected into the liquid medium of fermentation vessels they are consumed by the bacterium and converted into more desirable and useful molecules. Fortunately CO, our initial target, is an abundant resource, and a waste product of industries such as steel manufacturing, oil refining and chemical production. Moreover, it can be readily generated in the form of Synthesis Gas (‘Syngas’), by the gasification (heating) of forestry and agricultural residues, municipal waste and coal. By allowing the use of all these available low cost, non-food resources, such a process both overcomes concerns over the use of land resources that could be used for food production. Furthermore, capturing the large volume of CO (destined to become CO2 once released into the atmosphere) emitted by industry for fuel and chemical production provides a net reduction in fossil carbon emissions.”
Responsible Research and Innovation
And what has social science to do with all this? Over the last two years, six synthetic biology research centres have been created in the UK, funded by the public purse via Research Councils, with investment currently over £60 million. The centres are located at the Universities of Nottingham, Cambridge, Bristol, Manchester, Warwick and Edinburgh. In addition there is a Synthetic Biology Innovation and Knowledge Centre at Imperial College London.
All six research centres have been tasked with exploring a new approach to connecting science with society called ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’. By adopting this approach, research funders here in the UK, in Europe and in the United States hope that scientific research can be opened up at an early stage, allowing a wide range of societal issues and concerns to steer or shape innovation pathways. In doing so, it is also hoped that new technologies and products will be socially desirable and undertaken in the public interest. (A brief summary of of this approach can be found in this Nottingham report)
Thinking about the challenges of marrying synthetic biology with RRI, the following quote from Shakespeare comes to mind: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio).
As you have seen already from my descriptions of synthetic biology up in the heavens and down on earth, developing synthetic biology responsibly poses many challenges, some as yet undreamt of, for natural and social scientists, policy makers and members of the public. Some of these will be explored on Monday. We hope you can join us!