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Synthetic Biology Shows Promise to Cautious Public

By BiotechDaily International staff writers
Posted on 07 Oct 2010
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Synthetic biology, defined as the design and construction of new biologic parts, devices, and systems or redesign of existing natural biologic systems for useful purposes, holds enormous potential to improve everything from medicine to energy production, with the global market projected to reach US$4.5 billion by 2015.

In regards to what the public knows about this emerging field, and what are their hopes and concerns, a new poll of 1,000 U.S. adults conducted by Hart Research Associates (Washington DC, USA) and the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center (Washington DC, USA) found that two-thirds of Americans think that synthetic biology should move forward, but with more research to study its possible effects on humans and the environment, while one-third support a ban until we better understand its implications and risks. More than half of Americans believe the federal government should be involved in regulating synthetic biology.

"The survey clearly shows that much more attention needs to be paid to addressing biosafety and biosecurity risks,” said Dr. David Rejeski, director of the Synthetic Biology Project. "In addition, government and industry need to engage the public about the science and its applications, benefits, and risks.”

The poll findings reveal that the proportion of adults who reported they have heard a lot or some about synthetic biology has almost tripled in three years, (from 9 - 26%). By comparison, self-reported awareness of nanotechnology increased from 24 - 34% during the same three-year period.

Although the public supports continued research in the area of synthetic biology, it also harbors concerns, including 27% who have security concerns (i.e., that the science will be used to make harmful things), 25% who have moral concerns; and a similar amount who worry about negative health consequences for humans. A smaller portion, 13%, worries about possible damage to the environment.

"The survey shows that attitudes about synthetic biology are not clear-cut and that its application is an important factor in shaping public attitudes towards it,” said Geoff Garin, president of Hart Research. Six in 10 respondents support the use of synthetic biology to produce a flu vaccine. In contrast, three-fourths of those surveyed have concerns about its use to accelerate the growth of livestock to increase food production. Among those for whom moral issues are the top concern, the majority views both applications in a negative light.

The findings derive from a nationwide telephone survey of 1,000 adults and has a margin of error of ±3.1 percentage points. This is the fifth year that Hart Research Associates has conducted a survey to gauge public opinion about nanotechnology and/or synthetic biology for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars of the Smithsonian Institution was established by Congress in 1968. It is a nonpartisan institution, supported by public and private funds and engaged in the study of national and world affairs.

Related Links:
Hart Research Associates
Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center

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