Works in Progress - Autumn 2009

Whither Synthetic Biology?

By Arthur Caplan | June 27, 2013


Perhaps the most startling new area of science today is synthetic biology, which combines biology and engineering in the search to create useful new biological entities. While subjects such as genetics, organ transplants, and brain scanning are capturing the attention of the media and the public and grabbing a lot of the available grant support, synthetic biologists are on the edge of creating new life forms. By learning how to strip down the genetic information in a virus or to insert or combine the relatively simple genetic messages that guide the behavior of microbes, these scientists will soon concoct new bugs that can generate gases to be used for energy or that can supply food for fish and poultry, or even for humans. Professor Arthur Caplan, who directs the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, poses questions about the future of this new science.

1. What does a microbe have to do to qualify as a new life form—how different does it have to be from creatures that already exist? How, then, will we know whether to believe a synthetic biologist who claims to have created something new?

2. What is the risk that new life forms created by synthetic biologists will escape into the general environment and cause havoc with natural microbes or other living things?

3. Are existing regulatory agencies in the United States and elsewhere capable of providing adequate oversight of research involving synthetic biology?

4. Should information about the genetic composition of dangerous synthetic life forms, such as modified smallpox viruses, be published in science journals? Should the United States and other nations adopt a restrictive publication policy similar to that for nuclear secrets?

5. If terrorists or rogue nations learn to use synthetic biology, what sort of threat would it pose to the world? Do we need to toughen existing treaties to include biological weapons made synthetically?

6. Is it ethical to patent a new life form? The law seems to permit it, but is this in the best interest of science in the long term? Should all forms of life be outside the realm of patents?

7. Is life reducible to genetic messages? If a scientist creates a new life form, even a microbe, does that challenge religious views that say only God can create life?

8. If synthetic biology brings significant benefits to humankind, how can it be assured that the rich and poor benefit equally?

9. When, if ever, would it be appropriate to put a synthetic microbe into another living thing? Into a human being?

10. Should there be any restrictions on the kinds of microbes that scientists can alter or engineer—for example, only those not commonly found in the bodies of humans or animals?

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