DFG publishes new position paper on synthetic biology

Scientific developments in the field of synthetic biology have often given rise to public debate on the possible need for additional regulation. In response, the Permanent Senate Commission on Genetic Research of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) has published a position paper on synthetic biology, in which it describes key scientific advancements in the field within the context of current public discourse. The analysis shows that recent scientific advancements do not indicate any new potential risks and that existing legislation, in particular Germany's Genetic Engineering Act, therefore adequately covers current research. Recent developments also do not create any new ethical questions, as the relevant ethical issues are already taken into account in discussions relating to genetic engineering and stem cell research. In publishing this statement, the DFG Senate Commission aims to contribute to a factual discussion on the opportunities and risks of synthetic biology, in line with the DFG's mandate to provide science policy advice as defined in its statutes.

"We have noted with concern how terminology is often confused both in public and political debates - for example, in connection with the current negotiations on the Convention on Biological Diversity - resulting in calls to regulate synthetic biology," said Prof. Dr. Katja Becker, chair of the Senate Commission and Vice President of the DFG. "From a scientific standpoint, the sole employment of methodological approaches cannot be equated with the field of synthetic biology. Discussions on the assessment and potential regulation of organisms produced through synthetic biology should therefore focus on the possible new properties of an organism."

In its position paper, the DFG Senate Commission notes that it is important to draw a clear distinction between the concept of synthetic biology and the underlying methods and techniques. It also underlines the significant potential for innovation offered by further developing the principles and approaches of synthetic biology. The Commission adds that this potential for benefit must be balanced against possible risks relating to biosafety and potential misuse (biosecurity and dual use) and must also be considered in the light of ethical issues. However, since the term "synthetic biology" covers many different types of research, it is not possible to reach generalised conclusions - rather, these issues need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The types of work currently being carried out do not give rise to any new potential biosafety risks, the Senate Commission concluded. It also found that the ethical issues arising from the research approaches used in synthetic biology fall within the existing spectrum of ethical questions relating to genetic engineering and stem cell research. However, proactive ethical monitoring of scientific progress is needed. The Central Committee on Biological Safety (ZKBS) should also continue to closely monitor developments. This applies particularly to ideas for the development of autonomously replicating systems generated without a natural blueprint (artificial life), even though such systems are currently still far from being realised.

The position paper builds on the 2009 statement "Synthetic Biology - Positions", published by the DFG, acatech (Germany's National Academy of Science and Engineering) and the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, which examined the opportunities and challenges associated with this field of research.

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