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vi    | December 2010 | Realising European potential in synthetic biology 


implications of these advances. EASAC intends that this 

report will help to inform and stimulate further debate.

I thank the experts who contributed to the Working 

Group and my colleagues on the Council of EASAC who 

were responsible for organising the independent review 

of the draft report and its approval for publication. EASAC 

welcomes further discussion on any of the issues that we 

have raised and on key matters that should be studied in 

future work.












President of EASAC


Realising European potential in synthetic biology | December 2010 |    1

Synthetic biology is the engineering of biology: the 

deliberate (re-)design and construction of novel systems to 

perform new functions, drawing on principles elucidated 

from biology, chemistry and engineering. It is an emerging 

fi eld of increasing scientifi c and public policy interest.

This EASAC report is derived from activities by individual 

national academies of science together with analysis and 

advice from an EASAC expert Working Group:

•   Identifying features that distinguish synthetic biology 

from, for example, genetic engineering and systems 


•   Exploring what contribution synthetic biology might 

make across a wide range of applications (including 

health, energy, environment, agriculture, chemicals 

and security) to tackling EU societal needs and 

economic growth.

•   Assessing what more may be needed to create an 

appropriate regulatory environment, what scientifi c 

and technological challenges need to be overcome 

and what societal concerns need to be addressed.

•   Clarifying the implications for EU policy-making 


In addition to the multiple potential industrial 

applications, synthetic biology will lead to a better 

understanding of natural biological systems because 

synthetic systems can be simplifi ed to allow for 

experiments that would be too diffi cult to interpret if 

done in their full natural context. Among the major 

scientifi c advances in methodology, both in vivo and in 

vitro, where EASAC identifi es continuing opportunities 

for European research are the following:

•   Minimal genomes—identifying the smallest number 

of parts needed for life as a basis for engineering 

minimal cell factories for new functions.

•   Orthogonal biosynthesis—engineering cells to 

expand the genetic code to develop new information 

storage and processing capacity.

•   Regulatory circuits—inserting well-characterised

modular, artifi cial networks to provide new functions 

in cells and organisms.

•   Metabolic engineering—attaining new levels of 

complexity in modifi cation of biosynthetic pathways 

for sustainable chemistry.

•   Protocells—using programmable chemical design to 

produce (semi-)synthetic cells.

•   Bionanoscience—developing molecular-scale motors 

and other components for cell-based machines or 

cell-free devices to perform complex new tasks.

In each case, synthetic biology offers the potential to 

engineer new levels of safety into the application, for 

example by ensuring that the new systems are dependent 

on exogenous regulation, are separated from endogenous 

systems and are only operable in the target cells.

It is not yet clear if specifi c policy for synthetic biology is 

needed to advance the fi eld or whether this would risk 

creating additional obstacles by making unnecessary 

distinctions from other fi elds. There is, as yet, no 

consensus on whether synthetic biology will be a truly 

transformational technology or, merely, an incremental 

advance. Nonetheless, there are governance implications 

for biosafety (the protection of legitimate users) and 

biosecurity (protecting against intentional misuse). 

Broadly, we conclude that existing legislation is adequate 

as long as synthetic biology remains an extension 

of recombinant DNA technology and the scientifi c 

community commits to developing voluntary codes of 



The objectives of the EASAC recommendations are to 

support those Member States that are already active 

in the fi eld of synthetic biology, to identify options for 

building capacity in the currently less active countries, and 

to clarify the policy priorities for a coherent EU strategy to 

cover regulation as well as research and innovation:

•   Research capacity—there is a signifi cant agenda for 

the European Commission and Member States in 

synthetic biology that includes: (1) strengthening the 

underpinning scientifi c disciplines; (2) development 

of integrative Centres of Excellence to foster inter-

disciplinary perspectives; (3) funding new initiatives 

to network smaller laboratories across the EU; and (4) 

supporting translational research and standardisation 

of technology platforms and tools. Moreover, 

progress in synthetic biology depends not just on 

input from laboratory-based sciences but also the 

social sciences and humanities. Therefore, funding 

agencies must provide support across a broad range 

of topics.

•   Training—future progress is critically dependent on 

training the next generation of scientists, particularly 

in bridging the biology and engineering disciplines 

and incorporating skills from chemistry, physics and 

informatics, at all levels from undergraduate through 

to Master’s, PhD and post-doctoral programmes.


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