With research backgrounds ranging from materials engineering to molecular biophysics, seventeen leading scientists issued a statement today announcing that, much as the discovery of DNA and creation of the transistor revolutionized science, there is a new scientific field on the brink of revolutionizing our approach to problems ranging from eco-safe energy to outbreaks of malaria.
That research area is synthetic biology -- the construction or redesign of biological systems components that do not naturally exist, by combining the engineering applications and practices of nanoscience with molecular biology.
"The early twenty-first century is a time of tremendous promise and tremendous peril," includes the statement. "We face daunting problems of climate change, energy, health, and water resources. Synthetic biology offers solutions to these issues: microorganisms that convert plant matter to fuels or that synthesize new drugs or target and destroy rogue cells in the body."
The two-page statement calls for an international effort to advance synthetic biology that would not only propel research, but do so while developing protective measures against accidents and abuses of synthetic biology.
The statement was issued following the conclusion of the first Kavli Futures Symposium, held June 11-15 in Ilulissat, Greenland. Signed unanimously, signatories include scientists from the California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Cornell University, J. Craig Venter Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Institute for Advanced Study, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Stanford University, and University of California at Berkeley (United States); Ecole Normale Superieure (France); Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands); Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, TU Dresden (Germany); Weizman Institute of Science (Israel); Systems Biology Institute, and Sony Computer Science Laboratories (Japan).
"When we gathered at the Kavli Futures Symposium, researchers -- among the best in their fields -- in areas such as nanoscience, physics, biology, materials science and engineering met to share their expertise and brainstorm on one of the most promising yet controversial fields facing science today," said Cees Dekker, professor of molecular biophysics in the Kavli Institute of NanoScience at the Delft University of Technology. "That we not only achieved a consensus, but resolved to issue a unanimous statement on the critical importance of this field is significant."
The statement also addresses the uncertainties of synthetic biology. "As with any powerful technology, the promise comes with risk. We need to develop protective measures against accidents and abuses of synthetic biology. A system of best practices must be established to foster positive uses of the technology and suppress negative ones. The risks are real; but the potential benefits are truly extraordinary."
The statement's recommendations include creation of a professional organization that will engage with the broader society to maximize the benefits, minimize the risks, and oversee the ethics of synthetic life.
"This is a critical moment for synthetic biology," said Paul McEuen, professor of physics, Cornell University. "The choices facing us now -- the scientific investments we make and the rules we set down to govern the field -- will impact society for decades to come."
The symposium was sponsored by The Kavli Foundation and co-hosted and organized by The Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscience and The Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University of Technology. "This is the first of a series of unique symposia that focus on the trends, challenges and opportunities for future scientific research," said David Auston, president of the Kavli Foundation. "By emphasizing a forward looking perspective, the Kavli Futures Symposia provide a forum for discussion of the key issues facing future developments and directions in specific fields, and thereby help to define and guide the development of the research in these fields." Said Fred Kavli, founder of The Kavli Foundation, "I am delighted at the success of this inaugural symposium, which has not only taken a look into the future of science, but provided the first steps toward navigating a successful journey into an exciting and challenging new frontier."
Cornell University. June 2007.