Synbio profile interview – Alison McLennan

 

McLennan1.jpgDr Alison McLennan is an Assistant Professor at Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra. Alison is particularly interested in the challenges posed to regulation by emerging technologies, especially biotechnologies. Her PhD investigated regulation of synthetic biology and was awarded in 2014. In 2017, she presented the legal issues relating to synthetic biology at the SBA conference held in Sydney. She has continued to publish work on SynBio regulation and patent law, including for general audiences via The Conversation, and has a new book about synthetic biology law and policy issues coming out in 2018. Alison is interested in how we can not only manage the risks of new technologies, but also maximise their potential benefits. Twitter handle: @asmclennan

SBA: Could you describe your research in 3 sentences, Alison?

Alison: I do research in the broad field of ‘regulation of technology’, mainly focusing on intellectual property law, environmental law, biosafety and biosecurity law. My goal is to contribute to developing a regulatory environment that supports the safe, responsible development of synthetic biology and other emerging technologies in Australia. I aim to do this through interdisciplinary discussion and research.

SBA: Do you have any concerns about synthetic biology?

Alison: I have some concerns about the potential environmental impacts of highly engineered organisms. Not the technology that we are producing now, but future synthetic organisms that could be produced with the tools and techniques of synthetic biology.

 SBA: How do you think those concerns could be addressed?

Alison: I think we need to keep looking at our regulatory framework and our risk assessment tools and keep asking whether these are keeping up with the rapidly developing science in synthetic biology. We should continue taking a precautionary approach, as we currently do under our gene technology regulation.

 SBA: What do you find really exciting about synthetic biology?

Alison: Synthetic biology has really exciting potential to help us deal with some of the most difficult problems affecting our environment and our health. Synthetic biology’s applications in biofuels could help us to respond to global climate change, and synthetic vaccines and targeted cancer treatments could help us revolutionise how we respond to infectious disease threats and cancer. For example, we can already see medicines produced using synthetic biology making a difference in developing countries.

SBA: What do you think is the biggest challenge synthetic biology will need to overcome?

 McLennan 2Alison: This may not be the single biggest challenge, but I think there are significant challenges in generating public and policy discussion of synthetic biology. I think the field of synthetic biology is hard to describe because it is really a collection of different approaches to engineering biology, and it includes a variety of enabling technology, tools, processes and applications. This makes it harder to explain and discuss in an accessible way than something that relies on a couple of key technologies or concepts, like embryonic stem cell research or cancer gene testing. Also, the term ‘synthetic biology’ can conjure up things like building synthetic limbs, or even synthetic humans, but this isn’t the type of research occurring in the field at the moment. It can also be hard for people outside science to understand what the term ‘synthetic biology’ means because sometimes it’s described as just a baby step along from the genetic engineering we were doing before, and other times it’s described as a paradigm shift and something that completely changes how we understand ‘life’.

 

 

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This image is taken from artist/designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s project, “Designing for the Sixth Extinction”. Her work, which was commissioned by Science Gallery, Dublin for Grow Your Own… Life After Nature (2014), unpacks the potential of, and issues surrounding, proposed synthetic biology applications to protect biodiversity. One of four proposed fictional organisms, this self-replicating biofilm would coat leaf surfaces to trap airborne particles that cause damage to biodiversity, such as Chalara fraxinea fungal spores that cause ash dieback. The project uses fictional patent application texts to explore how technologies might be deployed: the pollutants would be shed with the leaf in autumn, collected and processed by other organisms in a closed synthetic ecosystem. Her work asks: should we “infect” nature to save it?

 

 

 

 

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