New frontiers in biosafety and biosecurity

Alan Raybould*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Biotechnology has great potential to contribute to sustainable development. Over the past 18 months, it has enabled rapid deployment of methods to detect, treat and protect people against infection by SARS-CoV-2 (Baek et al., 2020; Beigel et al., 2020; Voysey et al., 2021). In addition, gene editing is promising to revolutionize medicine, public health, agriculture and manufacturing through, among other things, the treatment of hereditary diseases, the control of agricultural pests and vectors of dangerous human pathogens, the breeding of crops for healthier diets and livestock for greater animal welfare, and the production of organisms for industrial biotechnology that produce raw materials that may replace fossil fuels in the manufacture of numerous products (Barrangou and Doudna, 2016; Collins, 2018; Ricroch, 2019; Clarke and Kitney, 2020).

Nevertheless, application of biotechnology could cause severe harm if the associated risks are not well managed. Gain-of-function research may increase our knowledge of pathogen evolution; however, it may also cause catastrophic effects if laboratory containment fails or if the new knowledge is used to develop biological weapons (Duprex et al., 2015). Treatment of disease using gene editing, particularly through heritable modifications, raises numerous questions about the bearing of inter-generational risks and the possible exacerbation of health inequalities (Vasiliou et al., 2016). And the use of biotechnology in agriculture remains controversial over 25 years after genetically modified (GM) crops were first grown commercially. Supporters point to reduced pesticide use, greater carbon sequestration and increased yield and profitability for farmers who grow GM crops (Brookes and Barfoot, 2018). By contrast, critics claim that the use of GM crops perpetuates harmful environmental and social consequences of industrial agriculture (Wilson et al., 2021).

To realize the potential of biotechnology, society must envisage biosafety and biosecurity as more than simply containment of organisms that have been bioengineered. Biosafety and biosecurity should seek to enable continuous improvement in policy- and decision-making to optimize the balance between opportunity and risk in using biotechnology to find sustainable solutions to societal problems. I discuss three new frontiers that must be opened to achieve this aim: political leadership in making and justifying choices about the use of biotechnology for sustainable development; regulations that encourage innovation; and responsible innovation by businesses and responsible engagement by civil society.
Original languageEnglish
Article number727386
Pages (from-to)1-5
Number of pages5
JournalFrontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology
Publication statusPublished - 21 Jul 2021

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • sustainable development
  • regulation
  • innovation
  • biotechnology
  • decision-making


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