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Published On: September 12th, 2023Categories: Articles, Synthetic Biology
From the outset, genetic engineering and manipulation have been one of the issues associated with the ethics and risks of synthetic biology.The earliest roots of synthetic biology (or syn-bio for short) trace back to the 1960s when scientists Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod discovered regulatory circuits that underpin cell response. Soon, researchers envisioned the creation of new regulatory systems, although that vision wouldn’t come to fruition until years later. Syn-bio in the 1970s and 1980s focused on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and molecular cloning.

Today, synthetic biology is a rapidly growing industry with many subsets under its umbrella. Still, ethical questions remain and the discussion concerning the ethics and risks of synthetic biology is still relevant.

Read on to learn more about what synthetic biology is, the ethics and risks, and the benefits of science.

Ethics and Risks of Synthetic Biology: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology

What is synthetic biology? Simply put, The National Human Genome Research Institute defines syn-bio as, “Redesigning organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities. Synthetic biology researchers and companies around the world are harnessing the power of nature to solve problems in medicine, manufacturing, and agriculture.”

Syn-bio applications can use bioremediation to clear pollutants from the sky, engineered yeast to make luxury scents, and modified rice to produce beta-carotene, which can help eliminate vitamin A deficiency.

So, if syn-bio can do so many wonderful things, why so many questions? There are ethical concerns and risks with any of the sciences, however, the ethics and risks of synthetic biology have their own unique concerns.

Ethics and Risks of Synthetic Biology: Synthetic Biology’s Big Umbrella

Over the years, as syn-bio has begun to grow, so have many of the areas that it reaches. Regarding the ethics and risks of synthetic biology, much of the discussion has been centered around genome editing. As of 2023, researchers can synthesize an organism’s entire genome and have had this ability for some time.

When leaders discuss the ethics and risks of synthetic biology, they often look at what is the harm or benefit to society. There is less objection in synthetic biology and environmental remediation as the power of synthetic biology and biohacking can help reduce our carbon footprint or keep pollutants out of the air, often with plant-based solutions

Many ethical concerns are raised with synthetic biology and genetic engineering. Many arguments center around Man’s ignorance of nature and attempt to play “God.” Some of the questions concerning the ethics and risks of synthetic biology, as reported by the National Human Genome Research Institute, are as follows:

  • What are the environmental impacts of introducing modified organisms into the ecosystem?
  • Are humans crossing moral boundaries by redesigning organisms with synthetic biology techniques?
  • If synthetic biology yields new treatments and cures for diseases, who in our society will have access to them?

These and many other concerns have been present nearly since syn-bio’s inception. There are also biosecurity concerns, as cures for infectious diseases fall under the umbrella of synthetic biology. There has been much research dedicated to these concerns, and organizations such as the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology has also been created to help regulate syn-bio and discuss the ethics and risks of synthetic biology, now and in the future.

The Benefits of Synthetic Biology

There are many benefits of synthetic biology, and in many cases, the benefits fully outweigh the risks. Some of the benefits of syn-bio include

  • Vaccine and drug development
  • Sustainable manufacturing
  • Personalized medicine
  • Bio-based specialty products
  • Production of biofuels

This is a partial list; as the field grows, it is expected that there will be more benefits of syn-bio in the future and regulatory commissions to investigate the ethics and risks of synthetic biology.

For more information and support in expanding synthetic biology within your lab, contact Hudson Robotics today.