Team:Missouri Miners/Ethics


Ethics and Synthetic Biology

Essential Reading

"Synthetics: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology." Summerschool: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology. Centre for Ethics and Technology, Aug. 2007. Web. 27 Oct. 2010. <>.


Synthetic biology is an emerging field that combines engineering approaches to biological systems. It is defined as “The engineering of biological components and systems that do not exist in nature and the re-engineering of existing biological elements; it is determined on the intentional design of artificial biological systems, rather than on the understanding of natural biology” (Synbiology, 2005).

Synthetic Biology has the potential to completely change the face of this world for the better. Technology is already beginning to advance at a rapid rate and soon the opportunities will be endless. However, there are some important ethical concerns with this new field of research that have not yet been examined in full. The following sections will cover a selection of ethical concerns and examine the consequences of each.

The most frequently cited ethical issue with synthetic biology is bioterrorism. Many fear that with the decreasing costs of equipment and supplies and the streamlining of lab techniques, anyone could create a deadly weapon. It has been shown that deadly viruses, such as Polio and the Spanish Flu, can readily be recreated (Synthetics, 2007). According to researchers Tucker and Zilinskas, there are really only two types of Bioterrorism threats that could affect us today: the “lone operator” and the “biohacker”. An example of a lone operator would be someone nursing a grudge that has access to, and knowledge of, lab equipment. An example of a biohacker would be someone who recklessly modifies organisms out of curiosity with little of no concern for safety.

However, it is also argued that creating a deadly virus is only one step out of the many needed to initiate widespread bio-terror (Tucker and Zilinkas, 2006). This has led some to conclude that just because the materials are made cheaper doesn’t mean it is any easier than before to create a weapon.

A second issue regarding the ethics of synthetic biology is the regulation and monitoring of the field. Because this is a relatively new area of research, the effects, good and bad, are not yet clear. Unbiased monitoring systems such as The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues have just recently been established to oversee the research done in synthetic biology (Bioethics, 2010). Previously, there was no system of checks and balances that could determine whether specific research is ethical, safe, or even necessary. As our technology advances it is important to keep our ethical viewpoints up to date.

It remains to be seen whether this window of unregulated research will yield the most significant advances in synthetic biology. Limitations due to regulation slow the scientific community and could possibly impede research. An ethical dilemma has arisen where the community will soon have to choose between the advancement of science and the prevention of bioterrorism by limiting technological developments (Synthetics, 2007).

Regardless of the regulation path chosen, it is arguable that now is the time when the public needs to be made aware of synthetic biology and its consequences. The general public is not thoroughly informed of the benefits or risks associated with this research. Some feel that, because of the important implications synthetic biology has on society, the public should “be able to have an input into the manner in which it is regulated” (Synthetics, 2007).

Another widely cited ethical concern of synthetic biology is the conservation of natural genomes. The complex system of gene regulation is not perfectly understood and nobody today can claim to know the effects, positive or negative, of artificial genes existing in the gene pool. As synthetic biology becomes more commonplace artificial genes are beginning to show up in nature. Biosafety is the term applied to preventing the risks associated with synthetic biology. Most labs practicing synthetic biology are aware of the risks and take preventative measures to reduce them.

Naturally occurring organisms that contain synthetic elements have been dubbed “biofacts” (Karafyllis, 2007). There is current debate as to whether these organisms should be considered natural or artificial. No commonly defined boundaries between the two have been established.

The last ethical topic to be discussed here regards the necessity of synthetic biology. This aspect of synthetic biology is not as frequently examined as other areas but deserves a significant amount of thought and consideration. There are numerous technological advancements made possible through the use of synthetic biology. However, these advances may not even be necessary. As so eloquently suggested by Michael Crichton in his classic novel, Jurassic Park, scientists become so preoccupied with whether or not they can do something, they never stop to think whether or not they should. Considering the possible risks associated with synthetic biology, scientists are asking themselves now more than ever if the research is worth it.

One example of this is the creation of a cheaper malaria drug. It is very possible to engineer a cheap way of producing a malaria drug that could be used to help large portions of poorer, southern countries (Ro, 2006). However, dispersing this drug could “lead to an increased dependence on rich countries and companies” (Synthetics, 2007). It is well known that there are other ways to reduce mortality rates due to malaria that do not stunt the development of these countries. Therefore, the community must ask and decide if synthetic biology is necessary in this instance.

Synthetic biology has the potential to greatly transform our world in positive and negative ways. We all have the responsibility to consider the ethical implications of our research and the research of those around us. Advances in a scientific area require advances in the way the area is applied to and interpreted by society. We must review outdated ethical conceptions of scientific technology to ensure they accurately address the issues at hand. Because of the significant impacts synthetic biology could have on our lives we must seriously consider the ethical arguments for and against it.


"Bioethics." The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2010. <>.

Karafyllis, N. (2007): Growth of Biofacts: The real thing or metaphor? In: R. Heil, A. Kaminski et al. (Eds.) Tensions. Technological and Aesthetic (Trans)Formations of Society. Bielefeld: transcript publishers, pp. 141-152.

Ro, D.K., Paradise al. (2006) Production of the antimalarial drug precursor artemisinic acid in engineered yeast Nature 440, 940-943

Synbiology (2005) SYNBIOLOGY, An analysis of Synthetic biology research in Europe and North America European Comission Framework Programme 6 reference contract 15357 (NEST), October 2005,

"Synthetics: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology." Summerschool: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology. Centre for Ethics and Technology, Aug. 2007. Web. 27 Oct. 2010.

Tucker, J.B., Zilinskas, R.A., (2006), The promise and perils of synthetic biology, The Atlantis news, Spring 2006

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