Laboratory equipment in the MICALIS quantitative metagenomics (MetaQuant) experimental facility. © INRA, INRA

How synthetic biology could benefit from the social sciences

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 02/16/2017
Published on 10/10/2014

Create life? To what end? Is such a goal possible or even desirable? This report details studies being carried out by INRA social scientists that deal with synthetic biology; their research is raising important questions.

Advances in biology, informatics, and modeling have led to scientific accomplishments that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. Even though scientists are still far from being able to create life, it is now possible to build a synthetic genome and have it function within a living bacterial cell. This is the focus of synthetic biology, an emerging field of study, whose aim is to invent new organisms or biological functions in order to amass knowledge and develop practical applications.

The emergence of synthetic biology has led to a multitude of questions. How should the knowledge being acquired best be put to use? What applications should be developed and what are their potential benefits? What are the related risks? As science moves forward, society is asking itself questions about the changes it is witnessing and the meaning of “scientific and technological progress.” There is resistance to certain advances that sometimes becomes entrenched. The more significant the change, the greater the need to engage in public debate. To adequately prepare for such debates, some sociologists advocate a proactive approach, in which current biological research is studied as it is being performed, as opposed to an approach in which the consequences of such research are addressed after the fact. These sociologists propose carrying out their studies in tandem with those of their colleagues in the natural sciences.

This report details some of the studies on synthetic biology that are being carried out by INRA researchers in the social sciences. These studies are addressing the historical background of the field, developing recommendations for public debates, examining how to establish collaborations with researchers in the natural sciences, and delineating ethical concerns. The report shows that the social sciences have ample potential to develop their own lines of investigation related to the emerging discipline that is synthetic biology and that such research can provide important insights and inform the collective decisions that will need to be made.

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