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Centre Moots Policy on Synthetic Biology

  • Published
    21st Feb, 2022

A draft foresight paper on synthetic biology released by the Department of Biotechnology has stressed the need for a national policy that can consolidate India’s stand on the issue. 


About Synthetic biology:

  • Synthetic biology refers to the science of using genetic sequencing, editing, and modification to create unnatural organisms or organic molecules that can function in living systems.
  • Synthetic biology enables scientists to design and synthesise new sequences of DNA from scratch.
  • The term ‘synthetic biology’ was first used by Barbara Hobomin in 1980, todescribe bacteria that had been genetically engineered using recombinant DNA technology.
  • Synthetic biology was initially synonymous with ‘bioengineering’.
  • In 2000, the term ‘synthetic biology’ was again introduced by Eric Kool and other speakers at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Francisco.

Applications of Synthetic biology:

  • Synthetic biology has applications in various fields from developing synthetic organisms for vaccination to creating natural products in a lab such as vanillin, the organic compound extracted from vanilla seeds, which can now be grown in yeasts with additional plant genomes.
  • In the pharmaceutical industry, synthetic biology can be used to make natural compounds such as artemisinin used for the treatment of malaria and Car T cell therapy for cancer treatment.
  • It is starting to be used in the fashion industry as well; some companies are exploring the possibility of dyeing jeans without producing hazardous waste.
  • There are companies using it to deliver fixed nitrogen to plants instead of using fertilisers, engineering microbes to create food additives or brew proteins.

International treaties and organisations related to synthetic biology:

Various international treaties and organisations are currently examining the impacts of synthetic biology and engineered gene drive systems on their respective agreements.

  • Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD): The primary international forum deliberating the regulation of “synthetic biology” is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Along with its subsidiary agreements:
    • Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
    • Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing
    • Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol
  • Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO): The FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), a report commissioned in 2017 examined the impacts of synthetic biology and digital sequence information (DSI) on the Plant Treaty.
  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES): It has been engaged in discussion on the question of synthetic products that are indistinguishable from products from listed specimens and the status of modified organisms and products under the Convention.
  • International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN):
    • IUCN Members adopted a Resolution titled “Development of IUCN policy on biodiversity conservation and synthetic biology” to map the impacts on conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
    • In early 2018, an IUCN Synthetic Biology and Biodiversity Conservation Task Force was created to oversee the implementation of the Resolution and to develop policy recommendations before the 2020 World Conservation Congress. 
  • Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS): The focus under TRIPS, on issues related to synthetic biology, pertains to the intellectual property rights issues.
  • UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS):
    • UNCLOS includes activities and resources beyond national jurisdiction.
    • In relation to a new treaty under negotiation that includes marine genetic resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), including sharing of benefits synthetic biology and its impact on ocean governance is being discussed. 
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