Science & Technology

Australia curious about potential of synthetic biology

Australians were broadly “hopeful”, “excited” and “curious” about how the emerging field of synthetic biology could address some of the greatest challenges facing our country, according to a new survey by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency.

In areas such as manufacturing, human health, agriculture and environmental conservation, synthetic biology could be used to manage invasive pest species to improve biodiversity, reduce pollution in waterways, or reduce mosquito-borne diseases. Synthetic biology involves applying engineering principles to modify and redesign biological systems and living organisms, and includes genetic engineering and gene editing.

CSIRO’s ‘National Baseline Survey of Attitudes Towards Synthetic Biology’ captured the views of 8037 Australians to gain insight into community perspectives on future synthetic biology-based solutions being developed by research teams at CSIRO.CSIRO project lead Dr Aditi Mankad said synthetic biology had a diverse range of applications and it was important the developing technologies are informed by societal views.

“Synthetic biology can help researchers develop novel tools to address many national challenges. But scientists and other stakeholders know very little about how Australians feel towards the novel genetic solutions offered by synthetic biology,” Dr Mankad said.

The Australian-first survey aimed to better understand attitudes and beliefs on future synthetic biology solutions for a series of health, industrial and environmental challenges.
It examined the support, perceived risks and trust people associated with these emerging technologies.

“We found that support for the development of these technologies as potential solutions for significant challenges was moderate to high overall, but support was also conditional on some unique issues for each case study,” Dr Mankad said.

One of the case studies examined how CSIRO is using synthetic biology to prevent mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Synthetic biology could be used to remove or change genes so mosquitos can no longer carry a particular harmful virus. Another example was CSIRO’s use of synthetic biology to clean up polluted waterways. Bio engineered pseudo-organisms had the potential to detoxify contaminated waterways in a more targeted and thorough way.

“Overall, we found that support was highest when there was a public health imperative or an environmental benefit such as pollution management or conservation,” Dr Mankad said.

“Many participants were also keen to know more about the possible risks to humans, animals and the environment, and more about regulation and control of the technology.

“These findings have real implications for how synthetic biology technologies can be further developed with the views of Australians in mind, to address any potential public concerns, support sustainable industries, and realize meaningful impacts for the environment, society and the economy.” The survey was an important first step in assessing public attitudes to inform next steps in the design and delivery of future research.

The seven synthetic biology applications being developed by teams at CSIRO and used as examples in the study were:

  • Gene marking of male chickens to improve practices in the egg-laying industry
  • Changing the properties of natural fibers to reduce pollution generated by synthetic fibers
  • Protecting endangered species by increasing species’ genetic diversity
  • Managing invasive pest species to improve biodiversity
  • Reducing pollution in waterways using bio-engineered pseudo-organisms
  • Gene editing of disease-susceptible mosquitoes to reduce mosquito-borne diseases
  • Genetically engineering resilient coral to restore the Great Barrier Reef.  

 

Full reports for each case study can be downloaded at https://research.csiro.au/synthetic-biology-fsp/public-attitudes
Relevant links:
CSIRO’s Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform
Synbio blogs – What is synthetic biology?; Designer mozzies; Enhancing natural fibres; Engineered coral; Cleaning up toxic spills

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