Responsible Research & Innovation

OpenPlant, through the OpenPlant Forum and themed working groups, provides a platform for exploring the potential applications of reprogrammed biological systems, and a framework for exploring the wider implications of the potentially disruptive new technologies.

The global cultivation of crops and pastures is driven by global population pressure, and creates unsustainable impacts on natural environments. An overarching aim of the OpenPlant project is to provide a map of feasible technical approaches to improving bioproduction and agriculture – including studies of possible economic models, opportunities and social implications for different scenarios and current practices.
— OpenPlant

The importance of responsible innovation

The global cultivation of crops and pastures are driven by global population pressure, and are responsible for unsustainable impacts on natural environments. An overarching aim of the OpenPlant project is to provide a map of feasible technical approaches to improving bioproduction and agriculture – including studies of possible economic models, opportunities and social implications for different scenarios and current practices.

We have brought together an exceptional collection of internationally-recognised scientists, whose skillsets range from biophysics, chemistry and DNA assembly - to crop physiology and agronomy. In addition, we have participants from the Science Technology and Innovation Studies unit at the University of Edinburgh, OECD, the Woodrow Wilson Centre, BioBricks Foundation, and academics involved in conservation, entrepreneurship, policy development and the social sciences in Cambridge and elsewhere in the UK – who have demonstrated an interest in tackling the technical aspects of surveying future technologies.

There are a number of sweeping interdisciplinary themes that are highly relevant to the long term development of Synthetic Biology in the UK – such as the adoption of different forms of IP ownership, open source technologies, new business models in biotechnology, scientific codes of practice, responsibility for design and implementation, bioengineering accreditation, third world exchange, design for sustainability, decentralisation, UK policy development, evaluation of environmental impact (at the point of conception and design, rather than implementation), guidelines for best practice in new biological systems and real-world agronomy. The OpenPlant Forum will cycle through a series of related themes over the five year period of the project.

One example of the type of problem to be tackled is nitrogen balance in agriculture, where global crop productivity relies on the annual application of 450 million tons of nitrogenous fertilisers. This has costs. It is estimated that 3-5% of the world’s natural gas is devoted to its production by the Haber process. Nitrogen utilization by crops is inefficient, resulting in runoff that is responsible for eutrophication and environmental degradation. Biological engineering could play a major role in moving to more sustainable practices.

Giles Oldroyd, an OpenPlant PI at the John Innes Centre, has major funding from the Gates Foundation to explore the engineering of biological nitrogen fixation in cereal crops. Others are exploring ways of modifying plant roots for improved nitrogen uptake, or altering soil bacteria for beneficial crop associations and production of synthetic ecologies in agriculture. Similar possibilities exist for improving photosynthesis, phosphorus utilization, weed control, and bioproduction of new foods, materials, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, biopolymers and energy.

For each technical possibility, there are wide implications for society, commerce, government policy and regulation. Questions remain of how inherently low-cost and self-reproducing products should be traded and controlled, whether this technology will remain in the hands of large corporations, or whether the speed and lowered cost of development will see the emergence of smaller, faster models for innovation.

What we do:

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) activities are integrated into the OpenPlant SBRC through a number of cross-cutting activities. Central to this are efforts to create mechanisms for the exchange of resources and information by developing enabling tools for sharing such as standards (the common syntax; Patron et al., 2015) and IP solutions (OpenPlant IP Working Group; Open MTA), resources such as DNA parts collections (see workpackage reports) and shared protocols (OpenPlant protocols shared on http://protocols.io/), and building an open community for plant synthetic biology (e.g. through OpenPlant Forum; OpenPlant Fund workshops to strengthen synthetic biology capacity in Africa).

The OpenPlant Forum is an important vehicle for bringing together a multidisciplinary community to discuss important questions in Responsible Research and Innovation. Smaller meetings such as the OpenPlant All-Hands meeting, ROC meetings, and interdisciplinary workshop (e.g. Co-lab OpenPlant workshops) provide further opportunities for discussions on issues related to RRI. To support these activities and enable our PDRAs to contribute more extensively, we delivered a workshop on RRI, ethics and argumentation, and openness attended by all OpenPlant-funded PDRAs and some associates. 
OpenPlant participates in quarterly meetings of the Virtual Institute of Research and Innovation (VIRI) in Cambridge. These meetings bring together members of the science departments with members of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) and the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) to discuss matters related to RRI and to discuss opportunities for collaboration. Resulting from these collaborations, OpenPlant researchers from all three institutes have become involved in a Bioengineering Horizon Scanning Exercise organised by CSER.

The OpenPlant Fund grant proposals have proved a great resource for the development of more targeted RRI activities, enabling the following workshops:

  • Responsible Innovation and Open Innovation with Large BioResources
  • Genetic resources in the age of the Nagoya Protocol and gene/genome synthesis
  • Co-lab OpenPlant - interdisciplinary workshops of science, art and design