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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.


Who's Looking to Profit from Human Germline Changes?by Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesJanuary 28th, 2016Billionaire Randal Kirk has assembled the components to commercialize heritable human genetic modification.
Why Is Editas Going Public? by Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesJanuary 14th, 2016Editas, the gene-editing company founded by several of the scientists who developed CRISPR technology, announced on January 4th that it had filed preliminary paperwork for a public offering of stock.
Synthetic Biology's Defense Dollars: Signals and Perceptions by Dr. Filippa LentzosPLOS BlogsDecember 24th, 2015DARPA aims to develop radically new, game-changing technologies for national security and to create technological surprises for its enemies.
Livetweeting #GeneEditSummit: Democratized Debate or Segregated Conversations?by Elliot Hosman, Biopolitical TimesDecember 10th, 2015Though #GeneEditSummit was trending on Twitter, inclusive public debate must be more robust than the livetweeting of insular stakeholder meetings.
Extreme Genetic Engineering and the Human FutureReclaiming Emerging Biotechnologies for the Common GoodThe Center for Genetics and Society and Friends of the Earth examine the human applications of synthetic biology. This 50-page report challenges claims that this new set of genetic engineering techniques should be seen as "the future of manufacturing, engineering and medicine."
Gene Therapy: Comeback? Cost-Prohibitive?by Elliot Hosman, Biopolitical TimesNovember 19th, 2015Recent CRISPR news sometimes confuses germline modification - which should be put off limits - and gene therapy, which presents its own set of social and ethical risks to resolve before rushing to market.
[UK] Baby girl is first in the world to be treated with 'designer immune cells'by Ian SampleThe GuardianNovember 5th, 2015Genetically engineered cells were used to successfully treat an aggressive form of childhood leukaemia, though the experimental treatment had only been tested on mice.
GMO Propaganda and the Sociology of Scienceby Kristine MattisCounterpunchOctober 5th, 2015The false association between anti-GMO and anti-science sentiment obscures the lack of scientific consensus about the health and environmental effects of genetically modified crops.
Disgraced Scientist Clones Dogs, and Critics Question His Intentby Rob SteinNPRSeptember 30th, 2015Sooam Biotech, founded by scientific pariah Hwang Woo Suk, has cloned over 600 dogs for $100,000 each. The process works only one-third of the time and is risky.
CRISPR Democracy: Gene Editing and the Need for Inclusive Deliberationby J. Benjamin Hurlbut, Krishanu Saha, & Sheila JasanoffIssues in Science and TechnologySeptember 21st, 2015CRISPR raises basic questions about the rightful place of science in governing the future in democratic societies.
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