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Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology: Four Case Studies

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

Funder: The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

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? Building on a previous Hastings Center project that broadly outlined ethical concerns raised by synthetic biology, this project focused on selected case studies to illuminate and examine the moral and social questions: 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.

The case studies also allowed 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 project produced a special report of the Hastings Center Report, Synthetic Future: Can We Create What We Want Out of Synthetic Biology?