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Synthetic Biology - Synenergene

Medicines produced by artificial bacteria. Genetically altered algae that produce clean energy. New DNA material to order. Expectations of synthetic biology are running high.

Artificial life?
In synthetic biology scientists use genetic material as building blocks to design new biological systems, opening up a whole world of possibilities, in healthcare for example. But there are also concerns. Modifying existing bacteria and viruses might give rise to new pathogens. And synthetic biology can also be used to make biological weapons. The developments also raise ethical and intellectual property issues. Can you patent a new organism? Is it appropriate to create artificial life?

Rathenau Instituut activities
The Rathenau Institute is actively involved in the debate on synthetic biology and has been monitoring national and international developments as of 2006 (SynBio Info). Currently, our involvement in the European Synenergene project forms the core of our activities. Synenergene aims at fostering responsible research and innovation (RRI) in synthetic biology, and is particularly dedicated to stimulate public dialogue  on synthetic biology.  In the past, we have hosted a workshop where experts discussed the question of how to prevent abuse of knowledge for the development of weapons and how the Netherlands can contribute to ‘biosecurity’ (‘Biosecurity at the science-policy nexus’). We are also working with the Committee on Genetic Modification COGEM, which advises the Dutch government on the risks of genetic modification and synthetic biology. In collaboration with the team behind the annual international student competition Genetically Engineered Machines, or iGEM, in 2011 and 2012 the Rathenau instituut organised a Meeting of Young Minds, at which iGEM students debated important social issues associated with synthetic biology with young politicians and other stakeholders from politics and society at large.

Towards a broader public debate
On 17 January 2013, at a well-attended political café in The Hague, the Rathenau Instituut presented the reports ‘Geen debat zonder publiek’ and ‘Politiek over leven’ (in Dutch). In a Research Brief published at the same time, we called for political and societal organisations to become more involved in the current international debate on synthetic biology. By way of a contribution to the broader public debate we have outlined some future scenarios featuring potential applications and implications of synthetic biology (SynBio Scenarios). These scenarios show that the debate is not only about regulation, but also about the societal value of synthetic biology and the question of how far we should go in producing artificial life forms. We will continue developing such scenarios in collaboration with the iGEM community, throughout the Synenergene project.

International projects
Previously, we worked on a workshop project in the US organised by the J. Craig Venter Institute, exploring the possible social significance and implications of synthetic biology in the future. We are also participating in several European research projects on the societal aspects of synthetic biology. The SYBHEL project, addressed the ethical and legal issues raised by the expected future medical applications of synthetic biology. Next to our participation in Synenergene, we are currently involved in the GEST project, which aims at comparing how the societal aspects of synthetic biology are being dealt with in Europe, China and India.

Converging technologies
Synthetic biology is an example of a converging technology, whereby several fields of science work together to enhance the perfectibility of life. The Rathenau Instituut has published a book on the subject, entitled ‘Leven als bouwpakket’ (in Dutch.) An English version of the book was published as a special issue of the journal Nanoethics. It also coordinated the Making Perfect Life project on behalf of the European Parliament.

More information


Synenergene is an EU-funded project dedicated to challenges in Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in synthetic biology (SynBio). More information.

Meeting of the Young Minds

Due to the immense popularity of the iGEM student competition, the iGEM organization decided to regionalize the competition in 2011. Both in 2011 and 2012 the European-African iGEM jamboree was held in Amsterdam.

The Rathenau Instituut seized both of these opportunities to organize a Meeting of Young Minds, at which iGEM students debated important social issues associated with synthetic biology with young politicians and other stakeholders from politics and society at large. More information. 

SynBio Scenarios

On this page we have listed a number of ‘vignettes’ presenting short stories of synbio futures. The stories describe possible futures for synthetic biology in our society and in our lifes. More information.