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Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology

Project launched in January 2009

Principal Investigators:Gregory KaebnickThomas H. Murray, and Erik Parens

Funder:The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Synthetic biology seeks to apply the principles of engineering to the practice of biology and make possible the development of biological systems, including entire organisms, that have never been found in nature and serve precisely specified human purposes.

The main lines of research in synthetic biology rely on genetic engineering techniques that were first developed in the 1970s, but synthetic biology hopes to bring these techniques many steps forward. To make genetic engineering really live up to its name, synthetic biology aims at the development of genetic sequences that can serve as standardized modules and be employed in standardized platform organisms to cause those organisms to exhibit predictable behaviors. More effective medicines, intelligent tumor-seeking bacteria, and cheap biofuels are just a few of the hoped-for applications—while new weapons of terror are one of the fears.

This rapidly advancing technology raises ethical questions about benefits and harms that have not been thoroughly addressed. Some of these are concrete worries about risks and benefits. Synthetic organisms raise questions about public health, environmental contamination, and even deliberate misuse. Other concerns are about the distribution of risks and benefits—about justice, access to the benefits of the technology, and freedom from economic exploitation, but also about scientific freedom and intellectual property rights. And still other concerns are about the very idea of creating synthetic organisms. These tap into our inner instincts about what is natural and what is our relationship to the natural world, but also about the intrinsic value of human creativity and industry.

These nonphysical concerns raise the question whether of synthetic biology is intrinsically problematic and is undesirable for that reason alone, aside from its possible benefits and harms. This project addressed these questions. It sought to:

  1. Identify, articulate, and critique arguments about the intrinsic value of synthetic biology.
  2. Examine the philosophical and legal bases for incorporating intrinsic concerns into public discourse and public policy.
  3. Identify and evaluate the possible good and bad consequences for human welfare, broadly considered, posed by synthetic biology in its varied manifestations.
  4. Develop a set of general moral considerations to inform public discourse and public policy toward synthetic biology.

The project was carried out by an interdisciplinary working group including synthetic biologists, philosophers, social scientists, public policy experts, and theologians. In addition to Murray, participants from The Hastings Center included Erik Parens, PhD, senior scholar; Gregory Kaebnick, PhD, scholar and editor of the Hastings Center Report; and Mary Crowley, director of public affairs and communications. Roger Brent, PhD, president and research director of the Molecular Sciences Institute at the University of California, San Francisco, was science advisor.


Public service

  • Gregory E. Kaebnick, testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, for a hearing titled “Effects of Developments in Synthetic Genomics,” May 27, 2010, Washington, DC
  • Thomas H. Murray, presentation to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, Meeting Three, November 16-17, 2010, Atlanta, GA
  • Gregory E. Kaebnick, presentation to the Presidential Commission for the study of Bioethical Issues, Meeting One, July 8-9, 2010, Washington, DC

Lectures and Presentations

  • Gregory E. Kaebnick, “Physical and Nonphysical Harms of Synthetic Biology: An Overview,” lecture at Ethik der Synthetischen Biologie, ein Internationales Symposium, Freiburg, Germany, October 1, 2009
  • Thomas H. Murray, symposium participant, “Opportunities and Challenges in the Emerging Field of Synthetic Biology,” sponsored by the U.S. National Academies, The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Royal Society, Washington, DC, July 9-10, 2009
  • Gregory E. Kaebnick, “Synthetic Life: The New Industrial Revolution?” The Hastings Center, Garrison, New York, November 16, 2010
  • Erik Parens, “Seeking Common Ground on Ethical Debates about TechnoSciences like SynBio,” lecture at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC, June 24, 2009
  • Gregory E. Kaebnick, “Ethical Issues of Synthetic Biology: A Hastings Center Project,” presentation at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC, June 24, 2009


Articles and commentary

  • Thomas H. Murray, “What’s in a Name?” (twenty experts asked for views on the term “synthetic biology”) Nature Biotechnology 27, no. 12 (2009): 1071-1073.
  • Gregory E. Kaebnick, “Synthetic Biology: Engineering Life,” Lahey Clinic Journal of Medical Ethics 16, no. 3 (2009): 6-7.
  • Stephen M. Maurer, “Gene Synthesis Industry’s Continuing Fight Over Biosecurity Standards,” Bioethics Forum, December 17, 2009
  • Stephen M. Maurer, “Synthetic Biology Marketplace: Screening Out Terrorists,” Bioethics Forum, November 12, 2009
  • Erik Parens, “Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology: An Overview of the Debates,” published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC, June 24, 2009; a report begun for an earlier seed-project (also funded by the Sloan Foundation) on the ethical issues of synthetic biology
  • A book-length volume of essays is in development
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