Calling synthetic biology a technological breakthrough on a par with the automobile and the Internet, a Hastings Center special report explores how society should think about the potential benefits and risks of its applications as well as the very idea of designed, extensively genetically modified organisms.
Synthetic Future: Can We Create What We Want Out of Synthetic Biology? is the product of an interdisciplinary research project on the ethical implications and possible consequences for human welfare of synthetic biology, an emerging line of biotechnology that uses extensive genetic modification for a wide range of potential benefits, including the creation of new fuels and medicines. Thus far, this genetic modification has been mainly of microorganisms, but applications involving larger organisms are possible as well—applying synthetic biology directly to them or altering microorganisms that can then interact with larger organisms. These applications might entail modifications to human beings, crops and livestock, or wild species.
The lead article was written by Gregory E. Kaebnick, Michael K. Gusmano, and Thomas H. Murray, principal investigators of the synthetic biology project and editors of the special report. While concluding that “final recommendations about synthetic biology are not yet possible,” they outline “conditions and processes for evaluating synthetic biology.” Nine commentaries by scientists, philosophers, and policy experts expand on and argue with their perspective.