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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Twenty years ago, proponents of genetic engineering promised that GMO foods would increase yields, reduce pesticides, produce nutritious foods and help feed the world. Today, those promises have fallen far short as the majority of GMO crops are engineered...

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Scientists, scholars, and social justice advocates have debated for decades about the prospect of modifying the traits we pass on to future generations. The controversy emerged well before the relevant science or technology was clearly in view, but took on new urgency in early 2015. In April of that year, researchers reported an experiment with nonviable human embryos using a new-generation genome editing tool known as CRISPR-Cas9.

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Tuesday morning, more than 200 biologists, businesspeople, and ethicists will converge on the New York Genome Center in New York...

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Josiah Zayner is the kind of citizen scientist whom journalists like to write about. He left his job as a...

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