Today at Berkeley Lab

Information on Synthetic Biology and the Lab’s Safety Approach

Prepared by the Lab’s Synthetic Biology Working Group, formed under the direction of Sam Chapman, manager of State & Community Relations and including representatives from Public Affairs, Federal Government Relations, the Joint Genome Institute, Joint BioEnergy Institute, Environmental Health & Safety, UC Berkeley and others.

What is synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology combines modern principles of science and engineering to develop novel biological functions and systems.

This includes the design and construction of new biological devices, such as molecules, genetic circuits or cells, and the re-designing and engineering of existing biological systems, such as microorganisms. The goal is to engineer microorganisms to produce valuable chemical products from simple, inexpensive and renewable starting materials, such as sugars, in a sustainable manner.

Is synthetic biology an entirely new and untested field of science?

No. Through selective breeding, humans have been altering the genetic code of plants and animals for more than a thousand years. Synthetic biology today is an extension of the genetic engineering research that began about 40 years ago. Also known as recombinant DNA technology, genetic engineering has produced valuable chemical products such as human insulin and growth hormones, hormones for treating infertility, monoclonal antibodies and the hepatitis B vaccine. Through better understanding of biological systems and metabolic pathways, coupled with enormous advances in computing, synthetic biology moves beyond these earlier efforts to make the design and production of biological parts and systems more predictable and reliable. Berkeley Lab scientists will apply synthetic biology to the production of advanced biofuels that can replace gasoline, diesel and jet fuel in today’s engines and can be transported via existing pipeline infrastructures. Spinoffs from this research will include medical drugs, biodegradable and green chemistry replacements for other petrochemical products, such as plastics, and environmental restoration through decontamination of hazardous pollutants.

How safe is synthetic biology?

Out of four potential biosafety levels (BLs) of containment detailed in national and international standards, (BL1=least dangerous to BL4) Berkeley Lab operates at only the two lowest and most common biosafety levels, BL1 and BL2.

Synthetic biology research at JBEI typically operates at the BL1 level, which is defined as being: “Suitable for work involving agents of unknown or minimal potential hazard to laboratory personnel and the environment, or work with defined and characterized strains of viable microorganisms not known to consistently cause disease in healthy adult humans.”

Through the Integrated Safety Management (ISM) program the Lab meets or exceeds standards for biosafety, worker safety and health, and environmental protection set by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the biosafety of recombinant and other research; California Department of Public Health (CDPH) for biohazardous waste; Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for bloodborne pathogens; U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for protection of animal and plant resources; and other agencies.

Biosafety of research is also reviewed by a Lab Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) comprised of peer researchers, safety and health experts, and members of the public. IBC reviews include assessment and documentation of any risks and required controls.

Berkeley Lab maintains a robust incident and emergency reporting and response program in which staff and management are trained and encouraged to report incidents. The California Department of Public Health inspects the Lab for compliance with medical waste storage and disposal requirements and has consistently found the Lab’s program in compliance.