Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Synthetic biology & Scotland

Innogen’s Professor Joyce Tait participated in a debate about synthetic biology at the Edinburgh International Science Festival on 13th April 2010.

Joyce joined renowned chemist and synthetic biology expert Prof. Ben Davis (Oxford University) and Dr. Jim Haseloff, researcher and lecturer in synthetic biology (Cambridge University) and Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh for the event Designer Life: Scotland’s Next Industrial Revolution?, chaired by Quentin Cooper, BBC Science Presenter.

Could the next industrial revolution be based on biological rather than mechanical systems?

The industrial revolution altered our entire approach to manufacturing and lead to breakthroughs in IT and electronics. Synthetic biology, ‘the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes’(1) has an even broader scope with applications in generating energy, regulating and monitoring the environment and creating medicines and vaccines. It is estimated that the synthetic biology research market could be worth over $1.5 billion by 2013 (2).

Scotland made major contributions to the industrial revolution; will we have as big a role to play in synthetic biology?

“Yes and no.” said Joyce Tait. “Synthetic biology has to be an international effort: Scotland can’t do something on its own. However, we are well placed to be a major international player. Synthetic biology draws on expertise from a broad range of disciplines including chemistry, biology, physics, biotechnology, informatics, engineering and social science and we have research strengths across all these areas.”

Creating products from the science is another area where Scotland is has an advantage, thanks to support provided by Scottish Enterprise. Their £2.5million investment in the Genome Segment Assembly (GSA) programme aims to ‘enable the high-throughput assembly of DNA segments in an automated and reliable way. The technology developed is anticipated to benefit Scottish companies and universities developing synthetic biology applications across the range of market sectors.’(2)

“The infrastructure for innovation is important, and Scottish Enterprise have a vital role, but it is absolutely crucial to keep investing in the basic research.” said Joyce.

Is it safe?

“We need to be open about the risks of synthetic biology” said Joyce “ but we also need to be clear about how realistic those risks are, and balance those against the benefits.”

Regulating product development to reduce risks is essential, but it is also important that the regulations in place don’t stifle innovation. Joyce Tait’s work with the International Risk Governance Council, based in Geneva explores these issues.

“We don’t need less regulation, but we need to be smarter about how we regulate” said Joyce “We need a regulatory system which allows companies to deliver the benefits of the science safely”.

Want to find out more?

To read more about Joyce’s work with the Risk Governance Council, please follow this link.
To find out more about the Science Festival event, please follow the links below:


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