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Home > Press > What is synthetic biology? How should it be regulated?

Abstract:
Hastings Center Scholars Featured in Nature Biotechnology Issue on Synthetic Biology

What is synthetic biology? How should it be regulated?

Garrison, NY | Posted on December 18th, 2009

What is the market for biofuels and other products created by synthetic biology? What is the state of "do-it-yourself" bioengineers assembling DNA in their own garages? What are the ethical and safety issues? These are some of the questions explored in the December issue of Nature Biotechnology, which focuses on synthetic biology, an emerging field that aims to engineer organisms to develop new medicines, cheap fuels, and a range of other applications.

Gregory Kaebnick, a research scholar at The Hastings Center, wrote a commentary on whether moral objections to synthetic biology should affect public policy. There is a growing view, writes Kaebnick, that synthetic biology "threatens - perhaps more than any other technology - to change the human relationship to the ‘natural' world in morally undesirable ways."

Kaebnick is an investigator on a Hastings Center project on synthetic biology funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He writes that the notion that synthetic biology constitutes "playing God" is "at best debatable," because it starts with existing materials rather than creating life from nothing.

Kaebnick recognizes the potential safety hazards, such as the risk that synthesized organisms might leak out of a laboratory or factory or fall into the hands of bioterrorists. But he concludes that managing such risks would require "no special defense beyond that already offered for policies to protect rare species and undeveloped lands."

In another article, Thomas H. Murray, president of The Hastings Center and principal investigator on the synthetic biology project, was one of several experts asked to say what the term "synthetic biology" means to them. "Synthetic biology embodies: a faith that biological systems can be brought to heel, and made predictable and controllable," he writes. "Will what we might call the ‘Legoization' of biology fully justify the faith, stance, confidence and hope invested in it? The answer to this question will help to shape the future of humankind and the world we inhabit."

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About Hastings Center
The Hastings Center is a nonpartisan bioethics research institution dedicated to bioethics and the public interest since 1969. The Center is a pioneer in collaborative interdisciplinary research and dialogue on the ethical and social impact of advances in health care and the life sciences. The Center draws on a worldwide network of experts to frame and examine issues that inform professional practice, public conversation, and social policy.

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Michael Turton
845-424-4040 ext. 242

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