New Risk Management Tool helps synthetic biologists navigate Access and Benefit-Sharing 

A new Risk Management Tool is designed to aid synthetic biologists in navigating the intricate process of Access and Benefit-Sharing (ABS).

At Synthetic Biology Australasia 2023, Dr Michelle Rourke unveiled a new Risk Management Tool designed to aid synthetic biologists in navigating the intricate process of Access and Benefit-Sharing (ABS). 

Developed during her time as a Post-Doctoral Fellow at CSIRO under the now-matured Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform, the tool offers a crucial resource for the synthetic biology community of practice.  

Authored by Michelle, alongside the University of Griffith’s Dr Charles Lawson and Dr Fran Humphries, with a foreword by the AEB FSP’s Dr Aditi Mankad, Access and Benefit-Sharing for Australian Synthetic Biologists: A Tool for Risk Management clearly defines technical terms and outlines international standards relating to the use of genetic resources and associated Traditional Knowledge (TK) from other countries. 

Understanding the evolution of ABS

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and its Nagoya Protocol, outline international legal standards for Access and Benefit-Sharing. Initially conceived to regulate international bioprospecting activities, the CBD and Nagoya Protocol aim to address concerns that researchers from industrialised countries were extracting genetic resources and TK from less developed nations without adequately sharing the benefits and profits derived from their research.  

Over the past 30 years, ABS has evolved into a tool ensuring equity and fairness in research and development (R&D) using genetic resources and associated TK. 

Yet the complexity of synthetic biology adds a new layer of intricacy to the ABS landscape. With its focus on the disassembly and reassembly of genetic resources, reliance on information technology, and high levels of abstraction, synthetic biology introduces challenges that were not foreseen when the ABS framework was established. 

Addressing Complexity with the Risk Management Tool 

Synthetic biologists often require numerous genetic resources for their R&D processes, ranging from physical samples to informational inputs like genetic sequences. The Risk Management Tool provides a systematic approach to assess and navigate the complexities of ABS decisions. It assists researchers in identifying essential inputs, making informed decisions, and managing associated risks. 

The tool takes the form of a comprehensive risk framework, presenting a series of questions for synthetic biology researchers. It guides them through considerations related to research materials, data, stakeholders, the intent of the R&D, and potential pitfalls and benefits. By offering an overview of the ethical, legal, and social context surrounding ABS decisions, the tool empowers researchers to make informed choices. 

Navigating risks and responsibilities 

Non-compliance with ABS laws can have considerable consequences for synthetic biologists. Researchers may face obstacles such as the inability to publish their work, project termination, and even reputational damage. Some countries have implemented stringent fines and imprisonment for those failing to comply with ABS laws. The Risk Management Tool outlines considerations to help researchers identify and manage risks associated with different genetic resources and TK, fostering ethical research practices. 

As the field of synthetic biology continues to advance, the need for resources like the Risk Management Tool becomes increasingly evident. By providing a structured approach to ABS decisions, the tool empowers researchers to navigate the complex landscape, make informed choices, and contribute to ethical and equitable scientific practices. In a world where innovation and responsibility go hand in hand, this tool helps guide synthetic biologists to achieve responsible and impactful research.