The Council has set up a new Working Party to consider the ethical issues raised by emerging biotechnologies such as synthetic biology and nanotechnology.

Emerging biotechnologies are those that arise from new knowledge, or applications of existing knowledge, leading to the development of new capabilities. These technologies have the potential to provide global economical, social, health and environmental benefits. Work in synthetic biology, for example, is currently aiming to use genetically modified yeast to artificially create the otherwise scarce and expensive anti-malarial drug artemisinin.

However, these technologies also raise questions concerning possible but uncertain risks and harms to health, safety and the environment. They might sometimes be described as ‘genie out of the bottle’ technologies, reflecting concerns that once the technology has been 'released', it would not be possible to withdraw it, or that irreversible harms would have already been caused.

The Working Party, chaired by Professor Michael Moran, will consider a range of questions, such as:
  • How should risks and benefits of emerging biotechnologies be assessed?

  • How should safety to the public and the environment be assessed?

  • How can public engagement feed effectively into policy?

  • How can benefits to the public good be promoted?

The group met for the first time in January 2011 and a report outlining the group’s findings, including recommendations for policy, will be published in autumn 2012.

Find out more about the Working Party on emerging biotechnologies.