Synthetic biology presents an ethical tightrope


Making use of synbio requires a society-wide conversation about benefits and risks, argues Debra Mathews.


Synthetic biology may deliver great benefits, but it could also pose risks and ethical questions.
Synthetic biology may deliver great benefits, but it could also pose risks and ethical questions.
Luis M Molina / Getty Images

Synthetic biology is a descendant of recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology, which transformed biology in the 1970s by allowing scientists to cut and paste DNA from one organism to another. These same biologists were also the vanguard in another way – they were the first to publicly raise concerns about their own research. So concerned, in fact, that they enacted a moratorium while they figured out exactly what the risks were and how to address them. The bulk of these deliberations were carried out in 1975 at Asilomar State Beach in northern California – at a conference involving about 140 scientists, lawyers and members of the media.

Yet this now-legendary meeting was incomplete.

The scientists were concerned primarily with the potential human health risks of rDNA research. Left out entirely, and intentionally, at the Asilomar conference were issues related to the moral significance of genetic manipulation, as well as broader questions of social responsibility in science. As stated at the time by the group Science for the People (who were not invited): “Since the risks and dangers of these technologies are borne by the society at large, and not just scientists, the general public must be directly involved in the decision-making process.”

The public were not involved in those early discussions. Today, we continue to struggle in synthetic biology (and other areas of science) with making decisions about science where the broader society has deep moral concerns.

Benefits and risks

The potential benefits of synthetic biology are many, including solutions to grave challenges, such as global warming (e.g. biofuels), environmental disasters (e.g. crude-oil-eating microbes), and human disease (e.g. genetically modified mosquitoes to combat malaria or arsenic detectors for drinking water).

That said, there is a reason the security community is interested in synthetic biology. (If you want a friend in the FBI, get into synthetic biology!) A major concern is dual-use research – biological research with legitimate scientific goals that may be misused to pose a threat to public health or national security. While dual-use issues are certainly not restricted to synthetic biology – cars, for instance, can also be used to kill people – the concern is that synbio tools and methods will be used, for example, to make dangerous pathogens more transmissible or lethal, raising the spectre of bioterrorism.

Beyond bioterrorism, people have concerns that are intrinsic to the science, believing that genetically manipulating life is an inappropriate attempt at ‘playing God’. Some of this work also has implications for ecology, social justice and public health.

For example, while the creation and manufacture of semi-synthetic artemisinin (SSA) has been hailed by many as a major win for the field, others have serious concerns due to the fact that, prior to SSA, artemisinin had been exclusively derived from crops grown on small farms in China (where the compound had been used medicinally for thousands of years), Southeast Asia and Africa. Artemisinin cultivation has been an important source of income for thousands of farmers, and has enabled drug production in countries where malaria is endemic. SSA could shift drug production out of these countries to Western pharmaceutical manufacturers, taking the generated wealth with it, raising questions of justice, despite the noble goal of treating malaria.

Questions to ask

When reading about advances in synthetic biology, there are a few questions you can ask to help you think through the potential ethical issues. First, who will be affected by the technology? Sometimes those affected will be fairly discrete groups of individuals (e.g. artemisinin farmers or malaria drug producers). Sometimes they will be much broader groups or populations, such as those living near the release of genetically modified mosquitoes. How might those affected feel about the technology? What are their interests? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Are some groups more likely to benefit and others more likely to bear only the risks?

Next, who are the decision-makers? Who decided the technology was needed and how it was developed? What are their interests? Are they subject to the potential risks of the technology? Were other stakeholders’ interests taken into account?

Answering these questions can be difficult. Making justifiable decisions about ethically controversial areas of science can be even harder. But if we want both science and those it is meant to serve (us!) to thrive, we must continue to try.


Debra Mathews is assistant director for science programs at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, in Baltimore.
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