This article reviews the state of synthetic biology (SB) in Africa, its potential benefits, and ways to ensure its responsible development there. The latest phase of biotechnological innovation, SB is the modification of organisms for user defined purposes.
Without doubt, synthetic biology applications for therapeutics, such as antimalarial artemisinin, as well as for plant pest eradication and enhanced agricultural productivity, have many benefits. They can increase access to essential medicines and food crops. Biological sensors to rapidly diagnose and prevent environmental and water pollution will be valuable, as will be those for waste management and biodiversity conservation. Soil and water pollution from arsenic and lead is endemic in Africa. Biodiversity is endangered. These are areas that synthetic biology can do more to address. Existing biotechnology in Africa is largely traditional, with levels of advancement among countries ranging between tissue culture and molecular marker applications. Sizable synthetic biology presence is observable only in South Africa, where the Stellenbosch Biomass Technologies, and Inqaba BiotecTM are respectively engaged in biofuel production and gene sequencing services. Awareness is essential to appreciate synthetic biology benefits and mitigate related risks.
East African researchers and policymakers met UK academics and entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya to initiate UK-East African collaborations in synthetic biology in March 2017.
Some steps are currently being taken to strengthen awareness. In March 2017, East African researchers and policymakers met UK academics and entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya to initiate UK-East African collaborations in synthetic biology. Funded by UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), the workshop sought to develop synthetic biology research and training programs, spotlight useful application areas, and foster networks and information exchange between researchers from both regions. “There is an opportunity to use practical synthetic biology techniques to develop a much more modern and focused industry [in East Africa]”, said Prof. Paul Freemont, workshop leader, and co-director of The Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College, London.
Synthetic biology development in Africa, while commendable, should simultaneously address accompanying concerns. These include the nature of engineered organisms and their likely impact on researchers, the public, plants and animals. Ethical objections to synthetic biology research (including germline editing, threats to national security, and loss of employment) also invite attention. Synthetic artemisinin production, for example, may threaten the livelihoods of African farmers in countries like Gambia, Kenya, Senegal and Tanzania, where Artemisia is grown naturally. ETCGroup, a long-time critic of synthetic biology, claims that “[g]rowing artemisia is risky and will not be profitable for long.” Production of synthetic vanillin may similarly impair African farmers in Comoros, Madagascar and Reunion, who account for over 80% of global vanilla beans. Likewise, transition to biofuels is ominous for oil-dependent African economies, mostly Nigeria, and may reverse land use and farming patterns from essential food crops to biomass production.
Developing synthetic biology in Africa must be extremely mindful of these concerns, and strive for better awareness and understanding among scientists, students, policymakers, law enforcers, and the wider African society. Governments and research funders should encourage safe laboratory practices and a culture of responsibility among potential synthetic biology researchers, alerting them to potentially negative aspects of their work. Of course, since biological and physical biosafety measures are vulnerable to accident and misuse, emergency preparedness is important. Such measures may include: information exchange on biosafety and biosecurity, developing monitoring and alert systems for accidents, bioterrorism, and disease outbreak; stockpiling medical countermeasures; and establishing emergency contact and dispensing centers.
Relatedly, synthetic biology research should proceed incrementally, guided by precautionary principles. Clear strategies and priorities are vital to integrate selected research lines with pressing needs, alongside ethical and sustainability concerns, rather than hasty profit maximization. Additionally, foreign outreach initiatives should go beyond the current emphasis on East Africa because the challenges of synthetic biology in Africa have continent-wide ramifications. Therefore, overarching strategies are preferable, with the added merit of preempting a feeling of exclusion by the rest of the continent.
Furthermore, sound legal frameworks are needed to govern synthetic biology practitioners and research activities. To facilitate a uniform, continentally recognizable synthetic biology governance system, groups including academia, industry, funders, local communities, and civil society groups must come together with the African Union under the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024). This effort should address, among other matters, biosafety, biosecurity, innovation-oriented intellectual property protection, and the creation of suitable and properly coordinated regulatory bodies. But these efforts would be fruitless without political and economic stability, viable private sector, and essential physical infrastructure, communication systems, energy supply, and research tools.
In the above areas, Africa will require external support in the form of financing, training and infrastructure. In November 2017, GCRF awarded about US$ 9.07 million to the University of Benin, a leading Nigerian university, and the Ghanaian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, in partnership with Lancaster University, UK. Such funding could boost synthetic biology research capacity in Africa. Still, any governance system eventually instituted should remain independent and able to align synthetic biology applications with effective oversight, while keeping abreast of developments worldwide, toward effective global governance.
Finally, synthetic biology conferences, as well as African representation at international fora, including the Strategic Multilateral Biosecurity Dialogue presently focusing on the U.S., Europe and Asia, could facilitate awareness on some of the above issues. Awareness could also be enhanced through endogenous initiatives like The First Regional Synthetic Biology Forum held in August, 2011 jointly by the African Center for Gene Technologies and the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, as well as the African Diaspora Biotech Summit held in April, 2017 at the University of Cambridge, UK. Increased funding of basic research at local universities and research institutes is another way to bolster awareness, in addition to research capacity and policy development.
Frank Akpoviri is a doctoral researcher in Synthetic Biology, Intellectual Property Law and Open Innovation. He takes keen interest in cross-disciplinary studies traversing politics, law, business and technology.