Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology

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

Funder: The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Launched in 2009, when synthetic biology was a new technology advancing rapidly, this project explored raises ethical questions about benefits and harms that had not been addressed. 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. Ethical questions include worries about risks and benefits, as well as concerns about whether the very idea of the technology is intrinsically problematic. The very idea of creating synthetic organisms taps 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. The project was carried out by an interdisciplinary working group including synthetic biologists, philosophers, social scientists, public policy experts, and theologians.

As part of the project, Hastings Center scholars advised national policy makers. Gregory E. Kaebnick gave testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, for a hearing titled “Effects of Developments in Synthetic Genomics,” May 27, 2010. Kaebnick gave a presentation to the Presidential Commission for the study of Bioethical Issues, Meeting One, July 8-9, 2010.  Thomas H. Murray gave a presentation to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, Meeting Three, November 16-17, 2010.

In addition to several journal articles, the project also produced a book, Synthetic Biology and Morality: Artificial Life and the Bounds of Nature, Gregory E. Kaebnick and Thomas H. Murray, eds., MIT Press, 2013.