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Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology: Four Case Studies

Project launched in June 2011

Principal Investigators: Gregory Kaebnick, Tom Murray, Erik Parens, Michael Gusmano 

Funder: The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Project background

Synthetic biology is a reality with potentially transformative benefits, including the production of inexpensive biofuels from algae and bacteria modified to serve as vaccines. But it also poses a variety of questions that will be a challenge to evaluate fully and to address in public policies. How should we strike the right balance between risks and benefits? How do we—indeed, can we—ensure that the changes wrought by the field are just and environmentally beneficial? How do we manage risks in light of the complexity of microorganisms and ecosystems? Does synthetic biology offer the prospect of changing the human relationship to nature in undesirable ways? Building on a previous Hastings Center project that broadly outlined ethical concerns raised by synthetic biology, this project will focus on selected case studies to illuminate and examine the moral and social questions above.

Project goals and activities

Drawing on experts in synthetic biology, ethics, philosophy, law, social science, and public policy, the project will take up four case studies: the production of biofuels, synthetic biology as practiced within the so-called “DIY” or “amateur biology” movement, environmental applications requiring field release, and engineering of the human microbiome. These case studies help capture the range of work in synthetic biology, and they will serve as anchor points to expand and deepen the discussion of how to move forward with the technology in a responsible way. The case studies also allow the project to spell out how best to understand notions of “prudent vigilance” and “responsible stewardship” advocated by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues in a recent report on synthetic biology. The cases provide a way of examining and elucidating these concepts in particular contexts—often the most productive way of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a concept.

The project will consist of three workshops; the publication of a set of essays, scholarly articles, and book chapters; and the development of a Web site with resources. It aims to make a substantive scholarly contribution to the study of synthetic biology (and emerging technologies generally, to the extent that they raise similar questions) and to do so in a way that will be interesting and engaging to a broad cross-section of readers. We are now in a crucial window for synthetic biology. Though the technology is eliciting strong reactions, it is in its early stages, public attitudes are still taking form, and public policy is still developing.


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