The Ethics of Synthetic Biology: Guiding Principles for Emerging Technologies

By Gutmann, Amy | The Hastings Center Report, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview

The Ethics of Synthetic Biology: Guiding Principles for Emerging Technologies


Gutmann, Amy, The Hastings Center Report


The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released its first report, New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies, on December 16, 2010. (1) President Barack Obama had requested this report following the announcement last year that the J. Craig Venter Institute had created the world's first self-replicating bacterial cell with a completely synthetic genome. The Venter group's announcement marked a significant scientific milestone in synthetic biology, an emerging field of research that aims to combine the knowledge and methods of biology, engineering, and related disciplines in the design of chemically synthesized DNA to create organisms with novel or enhanced characteristics or traits. Intense media coverage followed. Within hours, proponents and critics made striking claims about the discovery--ranging from "Frankencell" to the idea of humans "creating life"--often invoking the kind of eye-catching terms that heighten interest, and anxiety, about risks and benefits.

The commission had a unique opportunity to contribute proactively to a field of scientific inquiry that is relatively young. While the synthetic genome is a significant technical achievement, synthetic biology as a field is still in its early stages. Its most promising potential benefits and most worrisome risks are not yet upon us, allowing time for efforts to publicly consider and recommend safe development of this field for the good of all.

The president gave the commission six months to review this emerging science and produce recommendations "to ensure that America reaps the benefits of this developing field of science while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries and minimizing identified risks." (2) This task fit the commission's mandate to identify and promote "policies and practices that ensure scientific research, healthcare delivery, and technological innovation are conducted in an ethically responsible manner." (3) It also offered the opportunity for the commission to convene in an open and public forum to encourage reasoned deliberation and consideration of public issues, including the impact of new technologies on our collective human well-being and our responsibilities to the environment.

The commission considered the potential risks and benefits of the field, reviewed the technology in the context of essential conceptions of human agency and life, as well as the human relationship to nature, and unanimously concluded that the field of synthetic biology does not require new regulation, oversight bodies, or a moratorium on advancing research at this time. But these concerns, along with uncertainties about how the field may develop in the future, were central to the commission's unanimous conclusion that responsible stewardship requires that existing federal agencies conduct an ongoing and coordinated review of the field's risks, benefits, and moral objections as it matures.

The commission calls this strategy "prudent vigilance." Some commentators mistook these conclusions as a pass on any restraint of this emerging science. (4) Rather, the commission called not only for more coordinated agency oversight and monitoring of risks and benefits, but also for experts and policy-makers to actively and openly engage in public dialogue as the science evolves, so that all concerned citizens can understand and offer their own perspectives on what lies ahead. The commission worked to model such public outreach in its deliberations, and in its conclusions underlined the responsibility of experts, policy-makers, and federal agencies to carry forward this critical work of public feedback, education, and outreach.

The Commission's Deliberations

The commission held meetings in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Atlanta that provided opportunities for its members to deliberate publicly and to hear from nearly three dozen invited experts on scientific, ethical, and policy aspects of synthetic biology and its applications. …

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