Synthetic Biology: Access, Benefit Sharing, and Economic Development

According to Shakespeare’s Juliet, “what we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” But would a rose containing synthetic scent compound genes, virtually identical to those in natural roses, smell as sweet? Can a synthetic product ever be natural? These questions and more are addressed in a new paper presented at the European Policy for Intellectual Property (EPIP 2015) conference in Glasgow, organized by CREATe (Research Councils UK Copyright Centre).

The author Margo Bagley asserts that innovation in this area will stymie government regulators, policymakers, and consumers faced with the coming wave of commercial products created through the use of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology has the potential to provide cures for numerous diseases, stable supplies of therapeutic compounds, and new organisms and products that are limited only by the human imagination. But synthetic biology also has the potential to cause profound disruptions to the environment, and to the livelihoods of tens of thousands of farmers in the Global South who rely on growing and harvesting natural products. Its potential for facilitating “digital biopiracy” also could impact how a recent treaty, the Nagoya Protocol, will be implemented in national laws, and even has the potential to impact the scope of a potential new genetic resource agreement being negotiated at the World Intellectual Property Organization.

However, it is also quite possible that neither the grand promises nor dire perils of synthetic biology will ever be realized. Instead of a “towering wave” of change, synthetic biology could, in future years, be viewed retrospectively as little more than a tempest in a teapot, a technological development providing incremental advances with fully manageable drawbacks.

It likely is too soon to tell which of these labels will best fit synthetic biology or what its ultimate impacts will be, for good or ill. The paper takes a closer look at some of the emerging issues at the intersection of synthetic biology research, biodiversity protection, and economic development. Parts of the paper are drawn from the author’s forthcoming report for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on the Nagoya Protocol, synthetic biology, and intellectual property treaties.


Notes for editors: ‘Towering Wave or Tempest in a Teapot? Synthetic Biology, IP and Economic Development’ by Margo Bagley is a paper presented at the European Policy for Intellectual Property (EPIP) Conference, University of Glasgow, 2-3 September 2015. For more information visit:

Margo A. Bagley is Hardy Cross Dillard Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law,

For further information contact the author Margo Bagley (email: or the CREATe PR team (email:

New research presented at the EPIP 2015 conference will be shared on social media using the hashtag #epip2015