Biological and Biotechnological Risks

  • Advances in biotechnology offer great benefits to society, allowing higher food production in the developed and developing world, better medicines and health interventions, and the potential for cleaner, more environmentally sound fuels and waste disposal. However, the potential envisaged for several areas of biotechnological development is a cause for concern.

 

Synthetic biology and pathogen modification

  • A technology such as synthetic biology has the potential to transform society for the better, but could also – by deliberate effort or by accident – result in the release of an engineered organism that could cause great damage to humans and the environment.

  • Similarly, the technology to analyse and modify pathogen genomes will be potent in the fight against natural pandemics and existing tropical diseases. However, the same technology could open the door to “bioterror or bioerror”: deliberately engineered viruses released for terrorist or biowarfare purposes, or the accidental release of a dangerous organism.

  • One cause for concern is that the technology needed to conduct such research is becoming cheaper and more widespread, and will continue to do so. Similarly, the expertise needed is becoming widely available, through the internet and other means.

  • A thorough understanding of the risks from these technologies, both now and what can be expected in the future, is essential. CSER researchers will engage with the leading experts in genomics, synthetic biology, biotechnology and other areas of concern to develop strategies for analysing and mitigating such risks. They will spend periods embedded with leading laboratories and industrial centres in order to fully understand both the technologies and the cultures surrounding them.

 

Understanding a new type of regulatory challenge

  • The increasing power, use and availability of these technologies will require a new paradigm in regulation and technology policy. CSER researchers will regularly engage with industry leaders and policymakers by holding workshops involving policymakers, industry representatives and scientific experts.  The first of these, on the limits and risks of viral genome modification, is planned for 2014.

  • We will benefit from the guidance of  experts in biotechnology, ecology, zoology and the environment on our advisory: these include George Church (Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School), Lord Robert May (Professor of Zoology, Oxford), William Sutherland (Professor of Conservation Biology, Cambridge), and Susan Owens (Professor of Environment and Policy, Cambridge).

  • CSER’s researchers will also focus on most effective ways of transforming scientific insights into clearly understood recommendations for government, as well as public understanding. In addition to highlighting the risks that need to be taken seriously, CSER will attempt to dispel paranoia regarding biotechnological advances that don’t carry major risk or are appropriately regulated.