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About Synthetic Biology


"Synthetic biology" is an umbrella term that refers to a new set of powerful techniques for manipulating the fundamental molecular structures of life, including genes, genomes, cells and proteins. Techniques being developed under the "synthetic biology" rubric include the modification of existing bacteria to produce useful substances or perform new functions, the creation of novel artificial organisms from "scratch," and — less noted to date — the modification of animal and human genes.

Synthetic biologists foresee a host of human applications, including new methods to produce drugs, biofuels and vaccines; to diagnose, prevent and cure disease; and — far more controversially — to screen, select, and modify genes for specified traits in embryos, children, and adults. Nonetheless, the field remains in its early days, and separating hype from real potential remains difficult.

While diverse constituencies have voiced concerns about ecological and biosecurity risks, little attention has so far been called to the dangers connected to synthetic biology's human applications. Synthetically engineered viruses and pathogens and synthetic organisms released in the human body such as "tumor eating" bacteria, for example, pose profound dangers to human health.

Synthetic biology also presents dangers of a different kind if the field spawns forms of human genetic manipulation that heretofore have been impracticable. These include human reproductive cloning, the creation of "designer babies" through inheritable genetic modification, and other purported "enhancements." Leading figures in the synthetic biology field have in fact predicted, and in some cases embraced, such eugenic visions.

Such prospects raise concerns for social justice, human rights, and equality. However, at present, no comprehensive framework for assessment, oversight and regulation of synthetic biology exists nationally or internationally.


Pigs to Peopleby Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesNovember 24th, 2014Synthetic biology takes aim at xenotransplantation.
Cellular 'Computers' Gain a Hard Driveby Brendan BorrellNature NewsNovember 14th, 2014DNA-based memory can record multiple inputs from engineered gene circuits.
Synthetic Biologist Aims to Create Pig with Human Lungsby Lisa M. KriegerSan Jose Mercury NewsNovember 14th, 2014Led by scientists like Venter and Endy, the once-fledgling field of synthetic biology has surged in commercial interest.
Human Thoughts Used to Switch on Genes by Helen ThomsonNew ScientistNovember 11th, 2014"We wanted to be able to use brainwaves to control genes. It's the first time anyone has linked synthetic biology and the mind," says a bioengineer who led the team behind the work.
Africa: Synthetic Biology - Artificial Life Threatens Nature and Societyby Glenn AshtonAllAfricaOctober 30th, 2014Biologists continue to push the boundaries of their ability to alter life on earth in novel and unpredictable ways. The latest version is known as synthetic biology, or "synbio."
Video Animation Explores Risks of Treating Life as a MachineETC GroupOctober 29th, 2014Increasingly, scientists and civil society are sounding the alarm about the risks posed by unregulated commercialization of SynBio’s untested, experimental and unprecedented manipulation of life form.
Synthetic Biologists Create Paper-Based Diagnostic for Ebolaby Karen WeintraubMIT Technology ReviewOctober 24th, 2014Scientists say they can embed sophisticated genetic tests onto a piece of paper.
Regulate Synthetic Biology Now: 194 CountriesSynBioWatchOctober 17th, 2014In a unanimous decision of 194 countries, the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity formally urged nation states to regulate synthetic biology.
Resurrecting Smallpox? Easier Than You Thinkby Leonard AdlemanThe New York TimesOctober 15th, 2014The smallpox virus has now found a second host. It is not the pig. In fact, it is not even what we think of as a living thing. It is the computer.
Let's Play God (or not)by Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesOctober 14th, 2014Reason magazine earns points for honesty about wanting to use gene drives to "play God" — and for editing skills.
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