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PRESS RELEASE: 05.20.10 Moral Issues Raised by Synthetic Biology Subject of Hastings Center Project

Project completes third workshop as news of first synthetic bacterial genome announced

(Garrison NY) A Hastings Center workshop examining moral issues in synthetic biology completed its third meeting as the J. Craig Venter Group announced that it had created the first viable cell with a synthetic genome. “Synthetic biology certainly raises deep philosophical and moral questions about the human relationship to nature,” according to Gregory Kaebnick, a Hastings Center scholar who is managing the project. “It’s not clear what the answers to those questions are. If by ‘nature’ we mean the world around us, more or less as we found it, we may well decide that synthetic biology does not really change the human relationship to nature—and may even help us preserve what is left of it.”

Nor is it clear that the questions raised by synthetic biology are new ones. According to Thomas H. Murray, president of The Hastings Center and the project’s principal investigator,“We have come up against similar problems in other domains—most notably, in work on nanotechnology and gene transfer technology—but synthetic biology poses them especially sharply and pressingly.”

The Hastings Center has been at the forefront of interdisciplinary research into ethical issues in emerging technology. The synthetic biology project is funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Project participants include synthetic biologists, bioethicists, philosophers, and public policy experts. The Center’s work is part of a comprehensive look at synthetic biology by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Other participants in the initiative are the J. Craig Venter Institute and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.