Synthetic Biology Points of View

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?  

  • posted by S. Raghavan from NAE-OEC on 11/30/2011
    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?
  • posted by Noe LIzcano from Harlingen on 05/15/2011
    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.
  • posted by Noe Lizcano from Harlingen on 05/15/2011
    I belief that synthetic biology is a good thing but it still raises an eyebrow on certain procedures that the government uses.

  • posted by Rachelle Hollander from NAE-CEES on 03/30/2011
    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.
  • posted by Jessica Tucker on 03/04/2011
    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
  • posted by Eleonore Pauwels on 02/04/2011
    Synthetic biology inspires controversy by claiming it can “engineer life.” The claim is unprecedented among major scientific disciplines and suggests a commensurately unprecedented change to the way that people understand and value nature. It is therefore no surprise that synthetic biology appears at the forefront of what the US National Academy of Science considers a “coming biology revolution,” a next stage in the development of the life sciences (NAS 2009).

    A lot of innovation will occur in the interstitial spaces between these disciplines, but this emerging multi-disciplinary smorgasbord will provide challenges in terms of the ability of new fields to regulate their own actions, anticipate unintended consequences, communicate effectively with each other and the public, and solve what some political scientists call “collective actions.” There will likely be new challenges in managing ethical, social and legal issues at the boundaries between disciplines. More technically speaking, synthetic biology appears to stand poised to effect long-term ontological changes and reclassifications, to generate new entities, and to devise new understandings of old ones. These novel biological entities such as the “synthetic cell” have indeterminate ethical status, potential applications, and policy implications. These novel objects are conceptualized differently – from raw data to “scientific facts” – and treated differently according to institutional and non-institutional settings: from the laboratory, the courtroom and national patent offices, to more diffuse structures such as DIYBio labs or public media.

    Above all, in the scientific and public spheres, synthetic biology is part of a regime of techno-scientific promises and is therefore epitomized through metaphors and narratives that involve the articulation of a vision. The vision of synthetic biologists is a future where humans engage in the large-scale design and creation of new life forms that are exquisitely tailored for human purposes. The genetic engineering of organisms and the wholesale design and manufacture of living things from virtual genetic sequences are blurring the line between machine and organism, life and non-life, and the natural and the artificial, transforming the relationship between human kind and nature in ways that are exciting to some people but unsettling for others.

    Such revolution in the nature and objectives of the life sciences must be accompanied by corresponding changes in the way synthetic biology is embedded into society. Thus far, policy responses to the proliferation of new, boundary-crossing biological constructs have been fragmented. Responses often take the form of creating commissions and group of experts to study the ethical, legal, and social implications of particular trajectories of research.

    There is a need for pursuing the “socialisation” of synthetic biology design and practices: which means a confrontation of these practices with cultural and social narratives, a chance to go from what is presented as “matter of facts” to “matter of concerns” and, beyond, a pluralist discussion about our “biological futures.” Education in engineering ethics, history or sociology of science or even in ecology would help achieve this “socialisation” and create more reflexive practitioners. Cross-disciplinary cursus, cross-sectoral dialogues and trading zones… all these are interesting avenues to explore…
  • posted by SRaghavan on 01/24/2011
    At this point the field is still in its infancy and many of the dangers are still out of reach. The Presidential Commission did recommend vigilant monitoring for new developments which seems reasonable. It is too early to introduce legislation to contain something that we don't yet understand. Ethics training might help and is unlikely to hurt but probably should not be relied upon to keep us safe. More federal oversight will probably be necessary as the field grows.
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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: Thursday, March 05, 2015 <>