Biosecurity and biosafety risks related to synthetic biology

The potential applications of synthetic biology have to be viewed in the light of the possible risks. There are two factors which make the risk governance of synthetic biology potentially problematic. The first is that synthetic biology like genetic engineering involves the production of living organisms, which areself-propagating. The second is that with the growth of the internet and the routinization of many biotechnological procedures, the tools for doing synthetic biology are readily accessible.

The major biosafety risk of synthetic biology is the accidental release of synthetic organisms, which could have unintended detrimental effects on the environment or on human health(DeVriend 2006). This could bein the case of bioremediation, where synthetic organisms would be purposely released into the environment, for example to remove toxins from the soil. Not only are microorganisms living and self-propagating, but they also evolve rapidly, and they can exchange genetic material with each other across species boundaries.

Additionally, the flexibility of synthetic biology means that microorganisms could be created which are radically different from existing ones, and these microorganisms might have unpredictable and emergent properties (Tucker and Zilinskas 2006), making the risk of accidental release very difficult to assess in advance. Developing synthetic biology in Africa must be extremely mindful of these concerns, and strive for better awareness and understanding among scientists, students, policymakers, law enforcers, and the wider African society. Governments and research funders should encourage safe laboratory practices and a culture of responsibility among potential synthetic biology researchers, alerting them to potentially negative aspects of their work. Of course, since biological and physical biosafety measures are vulnerable to accident and misuse, emergency preparedness is important. Such measures may include: information exchange on biosafety and biosecurity, developing monitoring and alert systems for accidents, bioterrorism, and disease outbreak; stockpiling medical countermeasures; and establishing emergency contact and dispensing centers.