Cambridge website for Synthetic Biology resources

Compiled by Jim Haseloff at the University of Cambridge. SpannerPlantLogo140This site contains details of recent papers and activity in Synthetic Biology, with particular emphasis on: (i) development of standards in biology and DNA parts, (ii) microbial and (iii) plant systems, (iv) research and teaching in the field at the University of Cambridge, (v) hardware for scientific computing and instrumentation, (vi) tools for scientific productivity and collected miscellany.

Similar to the Cambridge-based Raspberry Pi and OpenLabTools initiatives, we promote the use of low cost and open source tools - in our case for use in biological engineering.

Google: Synthetic Biology news

Run mouse over list to see previews, click for full article.

White House Planning Policy Group


White House Planning Policy Group on Emerging Technologies

Andrew Maynard
Andrew Maynard
2020 Science

Posted: Apr 12, 2010 at

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) plans to form a new interagency group on emerging technologies, including nanotechnology andsynthetic biology.

The announcement was make by Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy at OSTP, at a government-organized workshop on Risk Management Methods and Ethical, Legal, and Societal Implications of Nanotechnology held last week.  The AAAS policy alert (not available on the web yet) noted that the group is intended to provide research funding agencies and regulatory agencies an opportunity to discuss emerging policy issues.

Unfortunately I wasn’t at the workshop in Washington DC where Kalil made his remarks, and so don’t know any more about this than was included in the brief note from AAAS.  However, from what was reported, this seems a sensible move – if carried through thoughtfully.

imageNanotechnology – arguably the US government’s flagship emerging technology – has highlighted the need for smart policy decisions when developing new technologies.  What started as a science-based initiative to promote new research, stimulate innovation and create new jobs, has increasingly become entangled in the social, political and economic impacts of science and technology promotion. 

Ten years after President Clinton established the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) – the initiative that coordinates nanotechnology activities across federal agencies – there remains an uneasy relationship between the desire to drive science discovery and technology innovation, and the need to understand and manage the potential safety, societal and economic impacts of this push.

At the heart of this uneasy relationship is a built-in resistance to asking “un-askable” questions.

The NNI’s vision is “a future in which the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale leads to a revolution in technology and industry that benefits society.” The vision is built on a belief that increasing our ability to control matter at the nanoscale is essential, that this will lead to a technology revolution, and that this revolution will benefit society.

This is a powerful driver, and has contributed largely to the success of the NNI specifically and nanotechnology more broadly.  But it does mean that people who ask difficult questions tend to be tarred by a brush that’s reserved for whistle blowers and inconvenient activists.

imageThis has been seen in the slow and sometimes reluctant inclusion of research into potential health and environmental impacts under the NNI umbrella; a resistance to developing government-wide policies on developing nanotechnology responsibly (a resistance usually justified by the NNI being a science initiative, not a policy initiative); and negligible efforts to include citizens who stand to gain or loose from nanotechnology as partners in the process (see David Guston’s piece on this for instance). 

There has also been a surprising lack of analysis of the broader economic impacts of nanotechnology promotion – as opposed to the economic benefits.  How many companies and economies have invested in nanotechnology simply because the US set an aggressive lead – and what has been the economic impact of this “follow the leader” mentality?

The reality is that in any initiative dedicated to promoting a given technology, people and organizations that raise issues and recommend actions that threaten to undermine this promotion risk being marginalized.  And this ends up playing into personal and agency self-interest – why give up a position of influence and the promise of funding for the sake of asking difficult questions?

I can only imagine what the response to a NNI member who suggested the usefulness of the initiative should be re-examined would be – I suspect it would not be pretty!  Yet if sound and strategic policies are to be developed that benefit citizens, the “un-askable” questions are often the most important ones.

imageLooking forward, there is a need to develop emerging technology-related policies that are balanced by considerations other than technology promotion. alone But on top of this, there is a need to develop more holistic approaches to emerging technologies in general. 

Nanotechnology is not the only new technology on the block – technologies emerging under the banners of synthetic biology, robotics, geoengineering, cognitive enhancement, and a plethora of others are coming up fast.  Then there are the gray areas between these where convergence leads to increasingly complex and ill-defined technologies.  In the face of accelerating innovation, should policies be developed for each and every new technology that comes along?  This would be exceedingly difficult to achieve now, and an impossible task I suspect a few years down the line.

One solution – and the one the White House seems to be pursuing – is to take a high-level approach to emerging technology policy that ensures cross-agency coordination, identifies emerging hot-spots and enables a balanced and socially-responsible approach to emerging opportunities and issues.  In some ways this is a role that the long-defunct Office of Technology Assessment within the US Congress played.  But looking to an increasingly technologically-complex future, I suspect that a complete rethink of how to ensure the benefits of new technologies are realized and the dangers avoided is needed.

Depending on how it develops, the new White House interagency group could well lead to coordinated action on emerging technologies that ensures policies are responsive to the needs of citizens – not just those who have a vested interest in technology promotion.  But I can guarantee it will hit resistance from agencies, organizations and individuals who stand to loose out from this move – including those who stand to lose funding or influence as a result of it. 

Yet if the US government is to embrace technology development that benefits society as a whole – especially in light of President Obama’s Innovation Strategy – it surely must create a policy forum where the “un-askable” questions can be asked; where no one interest group within the government can dominate proceedings; and where hurdles to social and economic prosperity can be identified, assessed and addressed without fear of agencies and individuals being marginalized.

Done right, this could be a critical step toward the US developing a 21st century approach to 21st century technologies.

Andrew Maynard is Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. 


Research news at Cambridge University

Run mouse over list to see previews, click for full article.

European Association of Students & Postdocs in Synthetic Biology (EUSynBioS)

EUSynBioSprelimLogo240The European Association of Students & Postdocs in Synthetic Biology (EUSynBioS) invites you to join its pre-launch community. The EUSynBioS initiative seeks to shape and foster a network of young researchers active the nascent scientific discipline of synthetic biology within the European Union by means of providing an integrative central resource for interaction and professional development.

Key objectives of EUSynBioS include i) the implementation of a central web platform for sharing news and opportunities relevant to members of the community as well as for academic networking, ii) the arrangement and support of events for academic exchange and professional development, iii) liaison with representatives of industry, and iv) establishment of a primary contact for collaboration and exchange with related communities of synthetic biology students and postdocs abroad.

Registering as a member is free and can be completed within 30 seconds via the following link Students and postdocs who register as a EUSynBioS member will be able to:
o Access a large network of young researchers in synthetic biology for academic collaboration and exchange
o Share technical resources and teaching materials
o Stay informed about relevant events such as conferences, workshops, or social outings o Browse relevant jobs in academia and industry
o Use site visits and mentoring opportunities to interact with prospective employers
o Connect with members of related communities all over the world

By registering as a member prior to the official launch of EUSynBioS, you will not only make a statement of support which will have an impact on the resources available to the community in the future; you will also be given the chance to actively shape EUSynBioS right from the start, and have an edge when applying for a position on the Steering Committee. We are looking forward to your joining us ! Christian Boehm, University of Cambridge.