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Emerging Policy Issues in Synthetic Biology

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Synthetic biology is at such an early stage of development that there is no uniform agreement as yet about what it actually is. To some, it represents a natural extension of genetic engineering, and therefore is “business as usual”. For others, it is a way to bring mass manufacturing out from the decades of biotechnology research. Currently the discipline is limited by the ability to synthesise DNA cost-effectively but this is a technical barrier that it is anticipated will be overcome. Synthetic biology raises a number of policy issues around R&D funding, company investment, PPP arrangements and innovative financing, infrastructure requirements, education and training, intellectual property (IP), regulation, and public engagement. In preparation for the continuing development and greater use of synthetic biology, some countries have started to prepare synthetic biology technical roadmaps and a global roadmap for the medium term would be an extremely useful policy tool. Technical roadmaps could both identify likely future policy requirements, and be a useful vehicle in public engagement.

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The applications and potential benefits of synthetic biology

Synthetic biology can be regarded as a platform technology that cuts across several key market sectors, such as energy, chemicals, medicine, environment and agriculture. Its formative years have been spent in developing the basic tools for applications in biofuels and other bio-based products, where the earliest products have been seen. It holds out very high expectations and potential for applications to human and animal health, with the potential for greatest benefits in the developing and poor nations. With a growing global population and threats to water and soil quality, agricultural applications are envisaged that could have far-reaching consequences for productivity and efficiency, but in many parts of the world such agricultural applications are controversial.

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