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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.


Regulate Synthetic Biology Now: 194 CountriesSynBioWatchOctober 17th, 2014SynBio industry’s wild west days are numbered.
Resurrecting Smallpox? Easier Than You Thinkby Leonard AdlemanThe New York TimesOctober 15th, 2014The smallpox virus has now found a second host. It is not the pig. In fact, it is not even what we think of as a living thing. It is the computer.
Let's Play God (or not)by Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesOctober 14th, 2014Reason magazine earns points for honesty about wanting to use gene drives to "play God" — and for editing skills.
Synthetic Biology Is What, Exactly?by Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesOctober 1st, 2014The European Commission is the latest body to struggle with defining the term synthetic biology, and has produced a 65-page report.
If Synthetic Biology Lets us Play God, we Need RulesZócalo Public SquareSeptember 23rd, 2014Soon we could be able to program DNA with the same ease we program computers. What new responsibilities will be imposed on us?
A New Generation of GMOsby Josie GarthwaiteEnsiaSeptember 18th, 2014Is synthetic biology on its way to our farms, markets and tables?
Drew Endy's Hollywood Dreams for Synthetic Biologyby Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesSeptember 18th, 2014Stanford professor Drew Endy is convinced that this is the century of biology, and in particular of making things with biology, but is concerned that popular media do not seem to reflect this.
If We Create Life, Who Will Control It?by Marcelo GleiserNPRSeptember 17th, 2014It is the world of the future, and we must have some control over where it's going. But how?
On the Irreversibility of Gene Drivesby Noam PrywesThe ScientistSeptember 16th, 2014Should researchers genetically modify wild populations of mosquitoes to curb vector-borne diseases like malaria?
“Evolution right now is in the marketplace”by Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesSeptember 11th, 2014George Church is as outrageous as ever, while both transhumanist ideas and concerns about increasing inequality are receiving more attention.
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