Sara Illman

Research in synthetic biology supports foresighting

29 Dec 2021

Synthetic biology offers attractive opportunities to influence people and the environment but also raises important societal and ethical issues. How much can and should we influence biology through synthetic interventions? Does synthetic biology provide a solution for the sustainable development of society, or does the term mainly add fuel to fears? What is synthetic biology all about? And what kinds of opportunities can it offer for increased wellbeing?

Biology is a natural science that examines natural phenomena such as life, living organisms and different mechanisms of life. The term ‘synthetic’ in turn refers to something artificial or unnatural. Although synthetic and biological are opposing concepts, combining the two creates a relatively new, multidisciplinary field of research.

Synthetic biology is an important tool in the development and manufacture of medicines, for example. In this context, the aim is to develop increasingly effective medicines whose effects are targeted only at specific target cells, causing fewer side effects for users, less environmental strain and less costs for society. Synthetic biology is also an important tool in many industrial processes seeking alternatives to fossil fuels and other environmentally harmful materials, for instance.

The objectives of synthetic biology research are clear: to design and develop biological systems and functions not found in nature. The aim is to create new processes and products that have beneficial effects on health, the environment and the economy. Synthetic biology is like sustainable development at molecular level. The research in the sector offers attractive opportunities to influence both humans and nature. At the same time, however, important societal and ethical questions arousing conflicting opinions arise regarding the application of the research: To what extent can and should we influence biology?

Academy of Finland promotes scientific and social impact of synthetic biology research

The Academy of Finland launched the FinSynBio Academy Programme ten years ago to support high-quality research on synthetic biology in Finland. The aim was to promote cooperation between researchers in different fields, thereby creating a critical mass that could bring Finnish synthetic biology research to an internationally competitive level and increase international cooperation. At the same time, the aim was to increase the dialogue between the scientific community and the rest of society on sociocultural issues related to synthetic biology and to improve the general public’s understanding of synthetic biology research.

In order to achieve these objectives, research funding was granted to a number of Finnish research projects that studied processes such as drug development, industrial processes and the manufacture of biomaterials. The programme also contained projects on ethical and societal issues related to synthetic biology.

The FinSynBio Academy Programme ended in 2019. A summary of the research and networks created by the programme has been published in English (FinSynBio final report, PDF). In addition, we wanted to look to the future as well. We did so together with VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd at a foresight workshop in March 2019.

Clear need for information on future trends

As a concept, foresight is as new a method and approach as synthetic biology. In Finland, the Prime Minister’s Office is largely responsible for foresight work to support political decision-making. It describes foresight as follows:

“Our operating environment is changing rapidly, and the challenges of the future are multidimensional and interdependent. Decision-making requires a broad understanding of complex issues. The aim is to respond to this need for information through foresight work that outlines future developments.”

The foresight workshop (PDF) was open to researchers who participated in the FinSynBio programme and also to other interested parties. The aim was to gain an understanding of the future scenarios offered by synthetic biology: What possibilities can synthetic biology offer in the future, what research trends can be observed, what ethical issues can arise and how can we prepare for these changes?

The workshop participants were divided into three different groups, which considered questions based on future scenarios in their field: energy, wellbeing and industry.

Information on synthetic biology must be available and understandable to all

The wellbeing group at the foresight workshop outlined that open communication between the research world and the general public is a prerequisite for future breakthroughs in synthetic biology, although this may pose challenges to the financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry, for example. In addition, the educational perspective was considered decisive – covering basic scientific education in schools and the training of decision-makers and healthcare professionals.

“In order for synthetic biology to be accepted as an instrument for increased wellbeing, we need to know what it entails, and the information must be available in a format that can also be understood by citizens,” the wellbeing group outlined.

Summary of the discussion in the wellbeing group of the foresight workshop. A more detailed description of the discussion and the results of the other groups can be found in the summary of the workshop.

Synthetic biology plays key role in navigating through COVID-19 pandemic

At the time of the workshop, we did not yet know that the world was on the verge of an unprecedented pandemic. Nor did we know that the pandemic would postpone the publication of the workshop’s results by more than a year.

Synthetic biology plays a key role in navigating through the pandemic. Among other things, it provides tools for the development of vaccines, tests and medicines.

The discussion at the foresight workshop would certainly have been different had it taken place one year later. On the other hand, the conclusion that the information about synthetic biology must be made understandable to all has certainly proved to be important and sustainable during the pandemic.

2021 was the Year of Research-Based Knowledge. Synthetic biology has brought us both information and solutions and new questions over the past year. What questions would you like to ask about synthetic biology and the future?

Do you have questions or feedback for us?