Synthetic Biology aims to design and manufacture biologically-based devices and systems that do not already exist in the natural world, including the re-design and fabrication of existing biological systems. The Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation was established at Imperial College in January 2009 with a grant of around £5m from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Synthetic Biology has as its objective the re-engineering organisms to develop new biological parts, devices, and systems or to redesign existing systems found in nature – for example in the creation of new microorganisms designed for bioremediation to clear pollutants from water supplies, or the engineering of rice or other foodstuffs so that they incorporate specific dietary components such as vitamins, seemed, at that time, to offer countless opportunities for industrial development, harnessing the power of newfound techniques of genetic manipulation to make organism do things that they otherwise would not. However it was immediately clear that such bioengineered organisms may pose risks if released into the environment, some of which were already being imagined in science fiction books.
For these reasons, there was a strong push to incorporate an understanding of potential social and ethical issues ‘upstream’, in the early stages of scientific research and development. The Centre was thus founded on a partnership that had already been formed with social scientists at the BIOS Centre at the LSE, and colleagues from the BIOS centre, including doctoral students funded from the EPRC and related grants, were ‘embedded’ within the synthetic biology research labs at Imperial, and worked closely with the researchers from the early stages. For example, one of the aims of synthetic biology was to create and standardise the tools and devices to make biology easier to engineer and this raised concerns that it could increase the risk of misuse for biowarfare or bioterrorism and this issue was the subject of a number of international workshops and debates organized by BIOS researchers in CSynBI and led to an ongoing concern in BIOS with issues of biosecurity, bioweapons and biosurveillance. A second major focus of work at that time was the attempt to develop biosensors countries that were robust and easy to use in different environments, for example to identify the presence of pathogens in hospital environments or pathogens in food or water supplies in developing countries. BIOS researchers in CSynbI carried out research on the development of synthetic biology in a number of countries, including Japan and China, and worked with the Royal Society on the challenges of international governance of synthetic biology, and collaborated in a number of international workshops and symposia involving the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK and their counterparts in the USA and China.
CSynBI was one of the earliest experiments in the UK with what became known as ‘upstream social engagement’, in which social and ethical issues were to shape the actual research strategies and objectives of an emerging technology, rather than being called upon at a late stage to address social and ethical implications, as had been the case in the ELSI (Ethical, Legal and Social Implications) programmes that grew up around the Human Genome Project. CSynBI ran until the end of 2014, when it became part of a larger consortium of UK Synthetic Biology centres at five British universities (Imperial College, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Kings and Newcastle) known as ‘the Flowers Consortium’ after the name of the Flowers building at Imperial College in London in which the strategy was developed, and the BIOS group remained engaged in this work for a further five years working on issues of responsible innovation, translation and commercialization producing working papers, training masters students in synthetic biology and researching actual and potential social, political and ethical issues in the development and commercialization of synthetic biology.