Synthetic Biology & Security

Synthetic biology is a field often identified as the most susceptible area of the life sciences to bioterrorism. Synthetic biology’s aim to make biology easier to engineer has raised concerns that it could ‘deskill’ biology and thereby increase the risk of misuse for bioterrorism.

I first became involved in synthetic biology in 2007 when my research team hosted a panel debate with J. Craig Venter at the LSE. Shortly thereafter, in 2008, my research team joined forces with biologists and engineers at Imperial College London to establish the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI) through a five-year, £8 million award from the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The majority of CSynBI’s work is focused on synthetic biology, but an integral part of it, which I led in 2008-2009, focuses on the socio-political aspects of making ‘biology easier to engineer’.

One of our recent initiatives was to bring together two-dozen synthetic biologists, policy experts, science journalists and social scientists in dialogue at King’s College London on 28 February 2014 to explore whether concerns about synthetic biology misuse risks are realistic or exaggerated in the light of current scientific realities. By analysing the workshop discussion, and drawing on complementary research, my co-organisers – Claire Marris and Catherine Jefferson – and I found that the link between synthetic biology and heightened biosecurity threats is often exaggerated in the media and in policy arenas. In order to produce more refined assessments of the biosecurity threat, we need to understand more clearly what would be achieved by synthetic biology’s goal to ‘make biology easier to engineer’, and to recognise the complex skills and equipment that would still be required to ‘engineer’ biology.

We launched a report from the workshop at a side event to the Biological Weapons Convention on 6 August 2014 that we jointly organized with the US National Academies of Sciences.

In December 2014, I was interviewed for the Wilton Park Dialogues with ‘key opinion formers’ about the science, opportunities and risks of synthetic biology: Podcast.

In January 2015, I was interviewed for The Guardian’s Science Weekly programme about the security risks of synthetic biology: Podcast.

Key project publications:

Lentzos, Filippa, Catherine Jefferson & Claire Marris (2014) “The myths (and realities) of synthetic bioweaponsThe Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, published online 18 September 2014.

Jefferson, Catherine, Filippa Lentzos & Claire Marris (2014) “Synthetic biology and biosecurity: Challenging the ‘myths’” Frontiers in Public Health, Vol.2: 115.

Lentzos, Filippa (2012) “Synthetic biology, security and governance” BioSocieties Vol.7(4): 339-351.

Lentzos, Filippa & Pamela Silver (2012) “Synthesis of viral genomes” in Jonathan Tucker (Ed.) Innovations, dual use and security: Managing the risks of emerging biological and chemical technologies, MIT Press.

Lentzos, Filippa, Caitlin Cockerton, Susanna Finlay, Alex Hamilton, Joy Zhang & Nikolas Rose (2012) “The societal impact of synthetic biology” in Paul S. Freemont & Richard I. Kitney (Eds.) Synthetic Biology: A Primer, Imperial College Press.

Lentzos, Filippa (2009) “Synthetic biology in the social context: The UK debate to date” BioSocieties Vol.4(3-4): 303-315.

Lentzos, Filippa, Gaymon Bennett, Jef Boeke, Drew Endy & Paul Rabinow (2008) “Visions and challenges in redesigning life” BioSocieties Vol.3(3): 311-323.