Promoting Responsible Innovation in Synthetic Biology to Improve Global Water Quality

By  Dr John Walls, Prof. Joseph Murphy and Prof. Bill Sloan

One of the Global Challenges of our time is to ensure the world has a steady supply of safe drinking water.  A new five year flagship  project ‘Synthetic Biology Applications to Water Supply and Remediation’ funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)  will contribute to this goal,  by drawing on the cutting edge science of Synthetic Biology being developed at the University of Glasgow.

In the Developed World, the engineers of the industrial revolution bequeathed us magnificent water infrastructure. But it is now aged, faulty, expensive to maintain, costly to run, energy guzzling and, consequently, unsustainable. In recognition of the energy debt associated with this, the UK water utilities have committed to being carbon neutral by 2030 and have embraced the need to innovate. The UK National Infrastructure Plan 2015 promises a massive investment in water infrastructure and whilst there is widespread recognition of the need for radical change there is no clear vision of what that change should be. The UK’s problems pale into insignificance in comparison with those of many other parts of Europe and, especially, the Developing World. It is estimated that within 25 years, water demand in many countries will exceed supply by an estimated 40%, with one-third of humanity having half the water required for life’s basics.

The environmental consequences of tackling this Global challenge using present day energy demanding technologies would be disastrous. Thus, as the Developed World and the Global South are being forced to plan sustainable solutions to water supply and treatment problems, there is an opportunity to propose radically new technologies that exploit the full potential of microorganisms and synthetic biology.

The £5.2 million project will harness one of the most rapidly evolving frontiers in science, synthetic biology, to tackle one of the most pressing engineering problems, the supply and remediation of fresh water, in order to deliver innovative technologies into a rapidly expanding international market. Synthetic biology is an exciting and potentially transformative scientific endeavour with apparently limitless applications. The frontiers of the field are being pushed back rapidly. In this respect, the design of technology for water supply and treatment is an area that urgently requires the innovation that synthetic biology promises. The aim of the project is to innovate in the basic-technology of synthetic biology as applied to the engineering of new biotechnologies for water supply and treatment

But what is synthetic biology? It is a new and rapidly evolving discipline concerned with the application of engineering principles to biology. It is a broad church that has led to; the transferring of genes into organisms, primarily bacteria, re-organising genetic codes, manufacturing genomes, developing minimal cells and at the frontiers of knowledge, the creation inorganic ‘life’. There is still a great deal of work to be done to enable us to move from the test-tube to practical workable technologies as well as challenges in scaling up research from  the laboratory to commercial applications.  This project will innovate in the basic-technology of synthetic biology to improve existing and create new biotechnologies for water supply and treatment. Whilst there are a range of important scientific questions that the project will answer in order that the technology can be applied to solve real world problems there are also a range of ethical, moral, regulatory and political issues that arise from the research.

Responsible Innovation

To this end we will innovate not just in science and technology but also in the use of ‘Responsible Innovation’ to underpin the scientific research.  Responsible Innovation has emerged as a tool that aims to ensure that advances in science and technology better reflect the needs and values of society at large rather than just the needs of particular stakeholders. A range of innovative public and stakeholder involvement mechanisms will be used in the project to foster dialogue, understand public values, ethical concerns and feed these into scientific practise. Responsible Innovation recognises that we need as a society to steer a route between the calls for precautionary bans and arguments for the unfettered advance of science and technology. Through Responsible Innovation it is hoped that technologies will emerge which are safe, legitimate, appropriate and commercially viable.

More broadly, in order to achieve a more just, sustainable society we need to reflect on what we want innovation to achieve, which means we need to find ways of collectively exploring ends rather than means, as Einstein said over 70 years ago “Perfection of Means and confusion of goals seem, in my opinion, to characterise our age” (Albert Einstein 1941)

This requires new ways of working together, not just new ways of creating dialogue between science and society but rethinking how the natural and social sciences can work together, through fostering new interdisciplinary spaces. The project will ensure an on-going dialogue between the social scientists, natural scientists and engineers on the project as well as bringing in artists and designers to create novel ways of thinking about of ethics, values and the implications of different technological trajectories. We hope to contribute to a new kind of scientific practise, dialogue and mechanisms of governance that can help us avoid the kinds of crises that have accompanied the attempted commercialization of previous technologies e.g. GM crops. The project will ultimately help to create a template for the Responsible Innovation of new technologies for decades to come.

Over the coming months we will put in place mechanisms to foster a public dialogue on the many issues raised by the research. In the meantime we would welcome any feedback and thoughts people have on the project by contacting John Walls either via email john.walls[at] or through twitter @JonMichaelWalls

Authors: Dr John Walls is a Research Associate based in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, Dumfries Campus, University of Glasgow.

Professor Joseph Murphy is Chair in Environmental Studies, School of Interdisciplinary Studies, Dumfries Campus, University of Glasgow.

Bill Sloan is Professor of Environmental Engineering, School of Engineering, University of Glasgow.

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