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SYN-ENERGENE — Result In Brief

Project ID: 321488
Funded under: FP7-SIS
Country: Germany
Domain: Society, Fundamental Research

Fostering a dialogue on synthetic biology

New areas of science, such as synthetic biology often cause public concern and require responsible governance. SYNENERGENE has engaged citizens across Europe in thinking about the challenges and opportunities synthetic biology poses.
Fostering a dialogue on synthetic biology
Synthetic biology represents the latest phase in the development of biotechnology. By manipulating the genetic material, scientists now have the ability to design, manufacture and modify organisms that can perform useful tasks such as producing more durable crops or food flavourings. But is society ready for this unprecedented level of control over biology? Do we understand its possibilities and risks and how best it should be regulated? The EU-funded SYNENERGENE project was set up four years ago to explore these issues. ‘From enthusiasts and promoters to harsh critics of synthetic biology, a great diversity of people and groups engaged and contributed to SYNENERGENE,’ says project coordinator Christopher Coenen, a researcher in the impacts of technology at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.

Synthetic biology, for instance, allows micro-organisms to be built almost like Lego, with different genetic bricks combined together. ‘These organisms are becoming increasingly more estranged from those we may find in nature which poses new risks. Moreover, our notions of what we mean by "natural" may itself change as synthetic biology allows us to put "life" and "nature" on the drawing board like never before,’ says Coenen. He suggests the public should also be fully informed about the field’s potential to contribute to address current grand societal challenges such as sustainability, food security and climate change.

The SYNENERGENE consortium consisted of ten European universities, plus 14 other partners. These including companies, think-tanks, a network of science centres and museums, an art society, science journalists, a public theatre and activist civil society organisations. There was involvement from 14 European countries as well as Brazil, Canada and the US.

The project organised more than 140 single events, many of which were open to the public. They developed a wide range of learning tools, information materials and options of engagement for the public. ’We used well-established means of public communication, engagement and dialogue, but also innovative means, in particular at the interfaces of art and science,’ explains Coenen.

The project aimed to engage a wide variety of perspectives, with a special focus on young people. In order to reach a very broad spectrum of people, they co-organised or supported additional forums, with a wide range of organisations and at large public events. ‘We also targeted activities to specific groups such as the new DIYbio/biohacker communities.’ says Coenen. This group includes largely young enthusiasts who conduct biological experiments and other scientific activities and build tools for biological research outside of academic settings.

A major outcome of the project was to create spaces for reflection and debate which included a diversity of voices. ’While some conflicts, for example around the use of synthetic biology for food products and in green biotechnology in general, were hard to handle, we at least managed to bring the opponents together’ suggests Coenen, ‘the project also helped create relationships of trust across a great diversity of stakeholders and fostered mutual learning.’ With a great diversity of event types and its content-rich website, the project also reached thousands of citizens in Europe and beyond.

Related information


SYNENERGENE, Public dialogue, Public engagement, Synthetic biology, Biotechnology, Biohacker community
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