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About Synthetic Biology


"Synthetic biology" is an umbrella term that refers to a new set of powerful techniques for manipulating the fundamental molecular structures of life, including genes, genomes, cells and proteins. Techniques being developed under the "synthetic biology" rubric include the modification of existing bacteria to produce useful substances or perform new functions, the creation of novel artificial organisms from "scratch," and — less noted to date — the modification of animal and human genes.

Synthetic biologists foresee a host of human applications, including new methods to produce drugs, biofuels and vaccines; to diagnose, prevent and cure disease; and — far more controversially — to screen, select, and modify genes for specified traits in embryos, children, and adults. Nonetheless, the field remains in its early days, and separating hype from real potential remains difficult.

While diverse constituencies have voiced concerns about ecological and biosecurity risks, little attention has so far been called to the dangers connected to synthetic biology's human applications. Synthetically engineered viruses and pathogens and synthetic organisms released in the human body such as "tumor eating" bacteria, for example, pose profound dangers to human health.

Synthetic biology also presents dangers of a different kind if the field spawns forms of human genetic manipulation that heretofore have been impracticable. These include human reproductive cloning, the creation of "designer babies" through inheritable genetic modification, and other purported "enhancements." Leading figures in the synthetic biology field have in fact predicted, and in some cases embraced, such eugenic visions.

Such prospects raise concerns for social justice, human rights, and equality. However, at present, no comprehensive framework for assessment, oversight and regulation of synthetic biology exists nationally or internationally.


Failures and Risks in Biosafety Regulationby Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesJuly 24th, 2014Accidents at CDC and elsewhere point up the difficulties in regulating potentially dangerous releases of genetically modified organisms, which scientists are, quite responsibly, discussing.
C.D.C. Director Admits to Pattern of Unsafe Practicesby Denise GradyThe New York TimesJuly 16th, 2014Dr. Thomas Frieden admitted that recent laboratory accidents involving flu viruses and anthrax were not isolated mistakes, but part of a broader problem of unsafe practices at the agency.
It’s 10 o'Clock -- Do You Know Where Your Bubonic Plague Is?by Laurie GarrettForeign PolicyJuly 10th, 2014Spilled smallpox, missing SARS, and rogue scientists with mutant H1N1. If you’re not scared, you should be.
What-Syn-a-Name?by Jim ThomasThe GuardianJuly 8th, 2014Synthetic biology is attracting attention from both scientists and regulators. But there is little agreement on what it is. Can we find a road out of synthetic biology’s definitional quagmire?
On the New Alphabet of Lifeby George Estreich, Biopolitical Times guest contributorJune 6th, 2014On metaphors, stories, and synthetic nucleotides: rewriting the code of life.
When and How Will We Regulate Synthetic Biology?by Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesJune 6th, 2014Several discussion documents about potential ways to regulate synthetic biology, nationally and internationally, have recently been published. They range from serious efforts to industry public relations exercises.
Venter Institute-Led Team Details Synbio Policy Challenges and OptionsGenetic Engineering and Biotechnology NewsMay 29th, 2014A new report details the challenges faced by regulators with the increased use of more sophisticated synthetic biology.
2-4-6-8, Novel Pairs to Replicateby Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesMay 29th, 2014A pair of artificial nucleotides have been inserted into E. coli, which reproduced the three base-pairs successfully until the source of nucleotides ran out.
Uninformed Tech Regulations Will Either Kill Innovation or Risk Human Livesby Jason KoeblerViceMay 27th, 2014How is the United States going to regulate new technologies that let people enhance and clone themselves, create synthetic organisms, and, perhaps, even cheat death?
Biotech Industry Cooks up PR Plans to Get us to Swallow Synthetic Biology Foodby Dana PerlsFood and Technology BlogMay 22nd, 2014Friends of the Earth exposes what was supposed to be a closed door and off-the-record industry meeting of some of the most powerful agribusiness, food and synthetic biology companies in the world.
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