Synthetic Biology Points of View

PostedMonday, January 24, 2011 at 3:10 PM

Simil Raghavan
Simil Raghavan

The ability to manufacture “synthetic DNA” has changed the nature of genetic engineering and led to a new term, “Synthetic Biology”.  It describes the work of those who can create organisms that use any number of man-made DNA sequences.  Specialized gene-synthesis companies now handle the complex process of manufacturing DNA and scientists or engineers can create “designer DNA” in an attempt to build biological systems from the ground up. 

The field holds great potential as well as un-explored risks.  Advocates emphasize the ability to design inexpensive and efficient systems for producing medicines, fuels, and other useful chemicals. Opponents warn that engineered organisms could threaten human health and contaminate natural biological systems.

The US Presidential Bioethics Commission recently delivered a report on sythetic biology which asserted that the risks associated with this new field are not currently significant enough to warrant any new regulations.  However, some activists claim that the report is flawed in failing to properly evaluate the potential environmental risks.  Others fear that the greatest danger may lie outside of academic and professional synthetic biology as the technology enters the hands of amateurs who set up personal science labs in their own homes or garages.

The National Academy of Engineering held a workshop recently to explore how the field of engineering ethics might contribute to the positive potential of synthetic biology.  Several attending believed that standards of professional ethics might address issues for synthetic biologists; however, synthetic biologists lack professional identification.  The engineers working in synthetic biology who were present at the workshop did not recall any significant educational exposures to engineering ethics or science and technology studies.

  • What do you see as the most significant concerns?
  • Do you agree with the findings of the Presidential Bioethics Commission?  Why or why not?
  • Are synthetic biologists professionals?  What justifies your answer to this question?  What might change your answer? 
  • Do you believe that ethics training can have a positive impact on this field?  If so, how?  
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