A report launched by the Academy today highlights an emerging but critical new field of innovation and technology that has potential for major societal benefit and wealth creation in such areas as healthcare, energy and the environment. Synthetic biology - the insertion of carefully engineered DNA into bacteria cells to make them behave in new ways - is an emerging technology that could bring great benefits. Synthetic Biology: scope, applications and implications identifies the next steps to build on the UK’s position in the field, create a regulatory framework and to explore, with the public, the ethical and societal issues involved.

Applications could include the development of biological advanced biosensors that could be inserted into the body to monitor the health of patients or detect types of cancer. Biosensors are currently being developed that can detect urinary tract infections. Over the next five years, it is likely that a new version of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, developed using synthetic biology techniques, will go into full production and have an impact on malaria worldwide.

Synthetic biology is also being used to develop more efficient biofuels. The current process for deriving biofuels from crops such as sugar cane or palm oil wastes about 90% of the biomass. Synthetic biologically derived biofuels are being designed to use a much higher percentage of the biomass which will result in a significant increase in yields and the associated carbon savings.

Chairman of the working group that produced the report, Professor Richard Kitney OBE, FREng Co-Director of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation, Imperial College London comments: “There is a real opportunity for the UK in synthetic biology. We need a national strategy that looks to develop synthetic biology research and skills, involve industry partners and engages with the public on any concerns as the technology evolves.”

Professor Nikolas Rose, Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics comments on the importance of public engagement, “The scientific community is very aware that the development of synthetic biology brings with it a number of regulatory and societal implications that need to be explored. The report recommends that these crucially important issues need to be addressed specifically and carefully. The Academy is currently conducting a public dialogue activity and nationwide survey to identify the particular hopes, expectations and concerns of wider society.”

Click here to download the  Synthetic Biology report (750.75 KB)

Listen to an interview with Professor Richard Kitney OBE FREng on BBC's 'Today' programme on 6 May 2009 at 08.47

Notes for editors

  1. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community

For more information please contact

Tonia Page, PR Consultant at The Royal Academy of Engineering on 07770 845984