Pairing genetic technology with computing and engineering techniques in what is known as synthetic biology makes it easier for researchers as well as biohackers to create and control genetic recipes. More effective medicines, intelligent tumor-seeking bacteria, and cheap bio-fuels are some of the hoped-for applications, while bio-weapons and unintended ecological consequences are among the fears. Ethical issues raised by synthetic biology were the subject of a meeting at The Hastings Center in August. Gregory Kaebnick, Tom Murray, and Erik Parens are the principal investigators of the project, which is being funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
The project focuses on ethical concerns about non-physical issues, including questions about what is “natural,” our relationship to and control of the natural world, as well as scientific freedom, justice and access to the benefits of technology, and intellectual property rights. The meeting featured presentations by an interdisciplinary working group of scientists, philosophers, social scientists, public policy experts, and theologians.
In a talk placing synthetic biology in context of the history of genetic technology, Roger Brent, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and science advisor to the project, warned against overstating the novelty of synthetic biology, while nurturing what makes it powerful. The moral concerns “are not specific to synthetic biology,” he said, but are an inevitable development arising from innovations in genetics and molecular biology.
Mark Bedau, a professor of philosophy and humanities at Reed College, said that the issues raised by synthetic biology encompass science and philosophy. Given the potential of the technology, he said, “Is it irresponsible not to play God?” Eric Juengst, director of the Center for Genetic Research, Ethics, and Law at Case Western Reserve University, said that forging ahead ethically will require scientists to be “responsible cowboys.”
Other topics included public perceptions of synthetic biology and the relevance of moral arguments about nature. Future meetings will look at political discourse, and public policy, as well as the risks and hopes for synthetic biology.
“Synthetic biology raises some of the same concerns that have dogged genetically modified foods,” said Kaebnick. “I suspect that a careful look may suggest that these concerns should not stand in the way of syn bio, but they haven’t been adequately explored. This meeting marked the beginning of that exploration.”