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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“What we’ve got here is some DNA, and this is a syringe,” Josiah Zayner tells a room full of synthetic biologists and other researchers. He fills the needle and plunges it into his skin. “This will modify my muscle genes...

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Stem cells can be coaxed to self-assemble into structures resembling human embryos.

Yue Shao had never seen anything quite like it.

Two years ago, Shao, a mechanical engineer with a flair for biology, was working with embryonic stem cells, the...

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Scientists are trying to manufacture eggs and sperm in the laboratory. Will it end reproduction as we know it?

Let’s...

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You might call it the smallest movie ever made.

This week, a team of scientists report that they have successfully...

A strand of DNA is featured. The upper right corner is highlighted.

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A pot of boiling water cooks two corns.

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A person suited in bioharzard gear, examines a sample of corn in a field.

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