04 March 2023

Synthetic biology and emerging risks

The unprecedented development of technologies and the rapid pace of innovation have led governments, investors and researches alike to question the nature and type of responses and regulation able to cope with these phenomena.

This concept note illustrates work in progress at the Tech Hub in collaboration with the International Science Council. It provides a survey of existing options of application of precautionary principle to Synthetic Biology. 

Synthetic biology is a growing field of research which consists of design, creation and modification of artificial biological entities and functions. Due to the uncertainty and unpredictability surrounding this cutting-edge area of study, the possibility is envisaged that it may entail unprecedented and potentially existential risks to humanity.

While there is little doubt on the definition of the precautionary principle – it aims to anticipate, prevent or minimize potential risks under conditions of scientific uncertainty – doubts arise when it comes to actually formulate this principle in such a way as to balance potential benefits and risks.

Already applied in the field of climate change and food regulation, the principle’s application is envisaged along a continuum ranging from absolute banning of activities each time there is a mere possibility of a project leading to harmful consequences to a weaker version that would require solely the potential risks resulting from an activity to be irreversible. The uncertainty with regard to its application persists also with regard to its nature – scientists and academics have not yet agreed on the type of acceptable risk that would trigger its application.

Such uncertainties make the formulation of this principle in normative and regulatory terms very difficult and raise additional questions related to the global distribution of costs and benefits of synthetic biology research, with regard to the geopolitical implications of synthetic biology research and with regard to the representation and inclusiveness of the synthetic biology policy discourse.

Please download the concept note of Adam Strobeyko below. For more information about our work at the Tech Hub, feel free to reach out to us: