The UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has published its report on Bioengineering and synthetic biology plays a prominent part in the report alongside genetically modified (GM) crops and stem cells.
We found good indications that the UK is learning from past experiences in bioengineering when handling new emerging technologies, such as synthetic biology. The Government and Research Councils have recognised the value of synthetic biology early, and are providing funding. There is good activity in public engagement on synthetic biology. However we are concerned that while research is well funded there is not enough forethought about synthetic biology translation, for example developing DNA synthesis capability, which would provide the UK with an excellent opportunity to get ahead internationally. If this is not addressed, synthetic biology runs the risk of becoming yet another story of the UK failing to capitalise on a strong research base and falling behind internationally.
One of the problems pointed out to the committee during the evidence-gathering stage was that UK industry is not exactly well-positioned to benefit from synthetic biology. Although the pharmaceutical industry in the UK is comparatively strong, other sectors that could make use of materials produced using synthetic biology have been weakened by the flight of manufacturing from the country.
Ray Elliott, head of strategic projects at Syngenta, told the committee in January: “We have an interest in synthetic biology, but we are watching it. Most of it, at the moment, is happening in microbes but it could translate into plants. In terms of industrialisation, there are not many players in the UK who could take up synthetic-biology products.”