Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is an umbrella term that refers to powerful techniques for re-engineering the fundamental molecular structures of life, including genes, genomes, cells, and proteins. Some of the techniques being developed under this rubric enable the modification of existing bacteria to produce useful substances or perform new functions and the creation of novel artificial organisms, so far for research purposes. Synthetic biologists foresee a host of applications, including new methods for producing drugs, biofuels, and vaccines; diagnosing, preventing, and treating disease; and — far more controversially and far-off — synthesizing modified human genes to produce specified traits in future children and generations. Such eugenic visions raise concerns about social justice, human rights, and equality.

Environmentalists and populations near actual or proposed uses of synthetic biology products have voiced concerns about ecological and biosecurity risks. These are especially acute when synthetic biology techniques are combined with “gene drives,” which can enable the rapid spread of modified organisms through the natural population. At present, no comprehensive framework for assessment, oversight, and regulation of synthetic biology exists nationally or internationally.


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Sometime this year, people in the US and Europe will start getting treated for diseases using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, but a big question remains—will it actually work?

Our primate cousins may hold the answer.

The first use of...

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Drew Endy almost can’t talk fast enough to convey everything he has to say. It’s a wonderfully complex message filled with nuance, a kind of intricate puzzle box being built by a pioneer of synthetic biology who wants to fundamentally...

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BIOTECH HAS BEEN betting big on Crispr, the gene-editing technique that promises to snip away some of humanity’s worst diseases. But...

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DNA is the code of life, and so advances that allow us to edit that code have unlocked vast potential,...

Lettuce plants grown indors in white containers.

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Digital illustration of DNA; painted blue on a darker blue background.

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Microscope image of H1N1 virus

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Black and white image of Dr. Frankenstein standing over his creation, a humanoid creature which lays strapped to a bed.

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A pair of hands holds a small dish filled with gel, out of focus, hand-labeled jars on the table

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