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SynBio Map Entries of East Asian Countries

The SynBio Map identifies and locates companies, universities, research institutions, laboratories and other centers across the globe that are active in synthetic biology research. It is a good tool to compare the trend of synthetic biology around the world. This map was created at the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars ("Synthetic biology project," ).

With 369 entries in the map, the United States has the most entries in the SynBio map. This value exceeds the sum of all the map entries of Asian countries combined. This indicates that the United States is an important player on the global synthetic biology stage - "Synthetic biology project".

In Asia, Japan, with 22 entries has the most entries followed by Mainland China with 20 entries. Considering the fact that no entries were listed in 2009, we can infer that the synthetic biology scene in Asia, especially in Japan and China is rapidly taking shape. Also looking at the map, we have noticed that how synthetic biology is developed in a certain country depends on the political or economic status of that country. For example, China, a socialist country, has no entries of private companies listed in the SynBio map, while Japan, a country with a free market economy, has around one third of the entries from private companies ("Synthetic biology project").

Participation in the iGEM Competition

Many different teams all around the world participate in the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. In this competition, teams use methods of synthetic biology to develop their projects. Because the iGEM competition and synthetic biology are closely related, we have searched for information on the number of teams that took part from East Asia to make a comparison and ultimately infer the trend of synthetic biology in these countries. Using such statistics is a common way to infer the current status of synthetic biology. In fact, lots of academic reviews of synthetic biology mention the iGEM competition to infer the current trend of synthetic biology in a particular country.

The number of participants in the iGEM competition has been increasing steadily every year. This trend holds true for some of the 5 Asian countries that we have investigated. For example, among the 5 countries, China has the most significant increase in the iGEM competition participation. In 2007, it only had 4 teams, but in 2012, there were 26 Chinese teams in the competition. The number of participants from Japan generally increased from 2006 to 2012, but this increase is not as great as that of China. For Hong Kong and Korea, the numbers of participants are nearly steady. For instance, from 2010 to 2012, Hong Kong steadily had 3 participants that had join the iGEM competition. In comparison with the number of participants from the United States, the number of participants from East Asian countries is still relatively small.

East Asian countries first participated in the iGEM competition in 2006. Korea and Japan were the first ones to join the competition. Ever since, the majority of the participants from Asia were from East Asia. For example, in 2011, out of 46 participants from Asia, only 5 were non-East Asian teams. The number of participants, however, from other regions is increasing, creating more diversity in the competition. Bogor Agricultural University has joined from Indonesia in 2012. In 2013, two teams from Indonesia have registered for the iGEM competition. To do comparison between different countries it is necessary to get relative values of participation because the number of universities in each of these countries is different. The total number of universities in each of the countries were searched online and compared as a percentage of the ratio of number of teams in the iGEM competition over total number of universities in that country.

The relative values calculated show very different result. If the ratio of number of iGEM teams over the total number of universities is considered, four of the countries/regions (Korea, Hong Kong, China, and Japan) actually have higher percentage of participation than that of the United States.

With this data we can understand why the recent increase in number of participants from Hong Kong and Korea was steady. It is because these two countries already have relatively higher percentage of participation in the competition. Also, in Korea and Hong Kong, the number of new universities being established is lower than that of China. This may explain why the increase in participation from Chinese universities is most rapid. The ratio for Hong Kong is significantly higher than other countries because Hong Kong is a city. Comparing Hong Kong with other countries might not be conclusive. Of the four East Asian countries that we have researched, Japan has the highest ratio of participation. This also correlates with the fact that the highest number of SynBio Map entry was in Japan. These two indicators suggest that Japan is the leading East Asian country in synthetic biology.

Synthetic Biology Regulation in East Asia

In general, countries/regions in East Asia do not have specific regulations that address bio-safety issues regarding synthetic biology. They instead enforce pre-existing guidelines that were originally formulated for the regulation of genetically engineered and genetically modified organisms. These regulations were developed in the early or mid-2000s. Experts in Korea, Japan, and China argue that new specific regulations for synthetic biology is necessary for the safe development of the field in these countries.

Currently, no countries in this region have proposed initiating the development of such regulations. This may be due to the fact that in 2010, the United States, a leading country in synthetic biology, announced that new regulation or modification of existing regulations that govern synthetic biology is not necessary. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues of the United States explained that instead of coming up with stringent regulation, they will “choose a middle course” to maximize the potential benefit of synthetic biology. It instead recommended self-regulation by synthetic biologists (Wadman, 2010).

The following table summarizes the current regulation imposed on synthetic biology activities in East Asian countries and the United States.

Many people and organizations are worried about this loose regulation of synthetic biology. Over 100 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have called for greater international supervision of synthetic biology. They worry that synthesized organisms could have unforeseeable risks for human health and the environment. Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization, even came up with The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology which outlines how synthetic biology should be regulated (Hoffman, 2012).


Wadman, M. (2010). US report sets ground rules for artificial life. Nature, Retrieved from
Hoffman, E. (2012). Global coalition calls for oversight of synthetic biology. Friends of the Earth, Retrieved from
Synthetic biology project: Map inventory. (n.d.). Retrieved from