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Page last updated at 08:32 GMT, Tuesday, 27 March 2012 09:32 UK

'Caution needed' on synthetic biology


The government wants to establish a world leading "synthetic biology" industry in the UK where scientists would design and create new forms of life by making artificial DNA to produce everything from medicines to fuels to materials.

Organisms, like bacteria, programmed to carry out specific functions such as fluorescing when parasites are detected in drinking water, or gobbling up oil spills and pollution, or churning out anti-malaria vaccines, could be applications to come out of such science.

Paul Martin, professor of sociology at the University of Sheffield, said that there were "lots of exciting opportunities in this field of bio-technology" and in particular, work on "new forms of bio-energy" which would have huge implications for finding alternative sources of fuel but he warned that "these applications are a long way off".

So far, these organisms are "at bacterial level... with very little talk of applying them to humans".

Professor Martin said that concerns on this being harmful to health or to the environment or that we can not control them are "legitimate and genuine" but he dismissed talk of a new industrial revolution as "fanciful".

He said that a recent public survey showed that a significant number of people are willing to take some sort of risk "providing there are clear benefits".

"At the moment it is difficult to see what those benefits are", he said adding that this new field needs to be approached with both "scepticism and caution".

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