Synthetic Biology Points of View

Simil Raghavan Posted on 01/24/2011 by 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?  
  • S. Raghavan
    S. Raghavan said:
    3 years and 4 months ago
    Recent developments at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center in California may draw even more public attention to the issue. What are people's thoughts on this article in the New York Times?
  • Noe LIzcano
    Noe LIzcano said:
    3 years and 11 months ago
    The bioethics commission delivered reports that sythetic biology asserted the risk with this new field are not currently significant enough to warrant any new regulations.
  • Noe Lizcano
    Noe Lizcano said:
    3 years and 11 months ago
    I belief that synthetic biology is a good thing but it still raises an eyebrow on certain procedures that the government uses.

  • Rachelle Hollander
    Rachelle Hollander said:
    4 years ago
    People who are interested in innovative approaches to establish standards and best practices for the safe and ethical development and applications of new technologies may benefit by examining the experiences of scientists and engineers involved with open release of genetically modified mosquitoes in areas where mosquitoes pose grave hazards to human health. Anthony James at University of California Irvine wrote a letter describing this progress in the 28 January 2011 issue of Science. Efforts to develop a guidance framework are ongoing. An international consultation at the World Health Organization in 2009 resulted in a WHO/TDR publication in 2010 about the issues, with recommendations about how to proceed.
  • Jessica Tucker
    Jessica Tucker said:
    4 years and 1 month ago
    One document that may be of interest for this forum is the Screening Framework Guidance for Providers of Synthetic Double-Stranded DNA, which was issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in October 2010. Screening synthetic double-stranded DNA orders may help to reduce the risk that an individual with malicious intent could access and use synthetic double-stranded DNA products to create a dangerous organism that is currently regulated. The voluntary guidance recommends baseline standards for use by companies to screen orders for synthetic double-stranded DNA products. Additional information can be found at

    Jessica M. Tucker
    Contractor, supporting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
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Cite this page: "Synthetic Biology Points of View" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 1/24/2011 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Tuesday, April 28, 2015 <>