Scant Funding on Risks of Synthetic Biology: Report

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By Pat Rizzuto

Sept. 16 — Less than 1 percent of the nearly $820 million the U.S. government invested in synthetic biology over six years has supported research on ethical, legal and social issues, according to a Woodrow Wilson Center report released Sept. 16.

Funding by various Department of Defense agencies has made up the majority, or 67 percent, of all U.S. investments between 2008 and 2014, according to the report, “U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research Funding.”

The National Institutes of Health has awarded more than $120 million in synthetic biology-related grants since 2008, the report said. It appears that the NIH does not use the term “synthetic biology” in the same context as other agencies, the report said, so this number could be artificially low.

Other government agencies providing significant funds for synthetic biology research since 2008 are the departments of Agriculture and Energy and the National Science Foundation.

The report said synthetic biology research funding is increasing internationally. Last year, research investments by the European Commission and research agencies in the UK exceeded non-defense spending in the U.S., the report found.

The research spending comes at a time of growing interest in synthetic biology, particularly surrounding the potential presented by new gene-editing techniques, according to the report. Recent research by the industry group SynBioBeta indicated that, so far in 2015, synthetic biology companies raised half a billion dollars—more than the total investments in 2013 and 2014 combined.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which would have oversight of chemicals and pesticides developed through synthetic biology, is not spending any money addressing the risks this emerging technology may engender, a spokesman for the Woodrow Wilson Synthetic Biology Project told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 15.

The Woodrow Wilson Center released the report two weeks before the EPA holds a Sept. 30 workshop to discuss guidance it is developing for the use of genetically modified algae to manufacture chemicals.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

The report on synthetic biology funding trends is available at

Details on EPA workshop and the guidance the agency is developing are available at

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