Pathways to responsible innovation

Social acceptance of genetic modification is a significant barrier to the future commercial success of plant synthetic biology in the UK. Over the long term, plant synthetic biology has the potential to enable new approaches to sustainable agriculture, expansion of arable land, increases in global food production, more effective bioremediation strategies, and natural sentinel systems. In order for this vision to come to pass, we will need to actively engage with policy makers, stakeholders and the broader public, to convey this vision and to garner broad-ranging support for future research directions.

The OpenPlant initiative includes participants with a very wide range of engineering, scientific, legal, socioeconomic and policy development expertise. We have recruited Dr. Jane Calvert, Dr. Emma Frow and Prof. Joyce Tait from Innogen and the STIS unit at the University of Edinburgh, who are perhaps the UK’s most experienced specialists on the wider impact of Synthetic Biology. They have been involved with all major UK initiatives in the field, and many international studies, and have a long association with scientists at Cambridge and Norwich. In addition, Prof. Bill Adams (Cambridge) and Prof. Georgina Mace (UCL) provide a global perspective on the potential impact of Synthetic Biology on land use and conservation, and were co-organisers of the recent, influential conference on Synthetic Biology and Conservation in Cambridge ( Further we have been joined by the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP), headed by Dr. Robert Doubleday. This is an influential group, which will provide access to additional expertise in sustainability, development, entrepreneurism, risk management and policy impact at the highest levels of business and government in the UK. In particular, we are keen to explore with CSaP the area of responsible innovation in the context of plant biotechnology. With Prof. Keith Lindsey (Durham) and Prof. Alistair Hetherington (Bristol) co-I Prof. Anne Osbourn recently organized a high profile international synthetic biology workshop sponsored by New Phytologist, the purpose of which was to raise awareness of the potential of synthetic biology for crop improvement and plant biotechnology (; New Phytologist (2012) 196:671). This paved the way for a Garnet plant synthetic biology workshop ( synthetic-biology-workshop), which she was also involved in organizing. The University of Cambridge has also funded a Strategic Research Initiative in Synthetic Biology, which is linked to the OpenPlant initiative, and promotes an even wider set of scientific collaborations across all Schools. Investigators on this project will continue to engage with regulatory and governing bodies, where they serve as reviewers and as advisors on issues related to plant biotechnology and synthetic biology. The results that arise from this project will be an important consideration in the formulation of policies related to synthetic biology applied to agricultural research. Further, a number of the researchers have active roles in policy work, including membership of leadership councils, advisory roles with professional societies, and as direct advisors to government.

We have developed the annual OpenPlant Forum as a vehicle for exchange and discussion about development of responsible innovation in the field of plant synthetic biology. We have requested funds to allow key participants and advisors from outside the field to play an active role in a series of technical discussions, social implications and policy discussion. We will nominate a series of plant synthetic biology themes for each year, such as future crops, improved land use, traits for sustainability, synthetic bioproduction, engineering perennial plants, etc. A working group will be established to explore a full spectrum of technical, social, political and economic issues around each chosen theme. The working group will invite relevant speakers for the annual symposium, and resources will be made available for the production of a public report after the Forum. The establishment of the OpenPlant forum will provide a venue for exchange of ideas, the recruitment of working groups on particular technical (and often fraught) topics – and provide resources for reports designed to bring together practitioners from different fields. The published reports will provide a technical resource for long-range thinking about policy development.