Comments on Synthetic Biology and Engineering Ethics - Brian Pfleger
Author(s): Brian Pfleger
Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
After reading the one-pager, can you come up with two ethics-related questions that seem key or unaddressed, or that you have encountered while practicing bio-engineering/synthetic biology?
I think the major ethical question that we face as practitioners of synthetic biology is “what is life”? This question is a driver for the synthetic genomics studies mentioned in the one page write up and a fundamental question that motivates many researchers in various fields. The delicate nature of this question in relation to one’s spiritual or religious beliefs could lead to internal conflict, dramatic changes in regulation, public opinion, and/or the ability to conduct synthetic biology experiments. While synthetic biology is in its infancy, we must train new scientists to be conscious of the sensitive nature of addressing this question and how it can impact non-scientists and scientists alike. I have heard from colleagues who have described their work in synthetic biology to elected officials only to be chastised for “messing with God’s plan”. In my opinion, developing a consistent educational message that addresses the ethical concerns related with this issue is vital to the continued growth of synthetic biology as a discipline.
Others have described the impact of engineered microorganisms on the environment, so I will raise a security concern. The ethics of working with dangerous or even lethal organisms are well covered in biological disciplines, but not in engineering. Students must be exposed to what could happen if synthetic biology was applied to engineering select agents.
Can you also formulate one personal reflection about the shape that collaborations between experts in synthetic biology and experts in engineering ethics should take?
I have not had a great deal of experience working with bioethicists or engineering ethics researchers. So, I cannot comment at this point on how best to collaborate with experts in these fields. Naively, I would like to say that students should possess an internal moral compass that steers them in the proper direction, but I recognize that this is not always true.
What activities and materials should have priority in ethics training in synthetic biology?
Sensitivity to religious and spiritual beliefs, biosecurity, environmental impact.
Cite this page:
"Comments on Synthetic Biology and Engineering Ethics - Brian Pfleger"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Tuesday, May 21, 2013