Do I Understand What I Can Create?

Biosafety Issues in Synthetic Biology
  • Markus SchmidtEmail author


Synthetic biology offers many new opportunities for the future. The increasing complexities in engineering biological systems, however, also puts a burden on our abilities to judge the risks involved. Synthetic biologists frequently cite genius physicist Richard Feynman “What I cannot create I do not understand”. This leitmotiv, however, does not necessarily imply that “What I can create, I do understand”, since the ability to create is essential but not sufficient to full understanding. The difference between having enough knowledge to create a new bio-system and having enough knowledge to fully grasp all possible interactions and its complete set of behavioural characteristics, is exactly what makes the difference for a sustainable and safe development. This knowledge gap can be closed by applying adequate and up-to-date biosafety risk assessment tools, which -in their majority – have yet to be developed for the major subfields of synthetic biology (DNA-based biological circuits, minimal genomes, protocells and unnatural biochemical systems). Avoiding risk is one part, the other one should be to make biotechnology even safer. This aim could be achieved by introducing concepts from systems engineering, especially from safety engineering, to syntheic biology. Some of these concepts are presented and discussed here, such as Event Tree and Fault Tree Analysis. Finally the impact of the de-skilling agenda in synthetic biology – allowing more and more people to engineer biology – needs to be monitored, to avoid amateur biologists causing harm to themselves, their neighborhood and the environment.


Synthetic Biology Safety Engineering Fault Tree Analysis Genetic Circuit Fault Tree Analysis 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The work was supported by a grant from the European Commission’s 6th framework programme under the category “New and Emerging Science and Technology” for the project “SYNBIOSAFE: Safety and Ethical Aspects of Synthetic Biology”, contract 043205. The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Organisation for International Dialogue and Conflict Management (IDC)Biosafety Working GroupViennaAustria

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