‘Synthetic biology may contribute to a sustainable society if it is used in a responsible and thoughtful manner. The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) will contribute to the responsible development of this new technology with knowledge about health and the environment’, according to Els van Schie, Director of Environment and Safety of RIVM at a meeting (7 September 2015) on synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology is a techno scientific development whereby technical design principles are applied at a molecular biological level. The toolbox of synthetic biology makes it possible to read, write, compile and change DNA. Applied in industry, this results in all sorts of possibilities, for example medicines produced by yeasts or biofuels from genetically modified algae. Currently this technology is developing rapidly, has widespread applications and is expected to have great economic impact. Because synthetic biology can make improved use of biomass, the technique is believed to contribute significantly to the development of a bio based economy: an economy using biomass instead of fossil fuels.

On 7 September 2015, RIVM and the Rathenau Institute organised a meeting for representatives of industry, civil society organisations, government and science. Speakers of the Delft University of Technology, RIVM and the Rathenau institute talked about the potential of industrial biotechnology in the bio based economy, sustainability and safety aspects, and social and ethical issues.  The current state-of-the-art in synthetic biology thinking and possibilities was illustrated by projects of the Dutch teams that participate in a student competition called internationally Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM).

Opportunities and Questions

Besides the many opportunities of synthetic biology, the development of this new technology also raises serious questions. Are the applications of synthetic biology indeed more sustainable than fossil oil based applications, for example? How do we ensure a safe and responsible development of synthetic biology within the context of a bio based economy? And who benefits and who bears the costs?

RIVM together with various stakeholders is contributing to the responsible development of synthetic biology. Currently RIVM is assessing the impact of these developments on health, the environment, sustainability and safety. In addition, RIVM is exploring possibilities for setting up a Knowledge Information Point on synthetic biology in which various interested parties are encouraged to participate.