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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.


The Printed Organs Coming to a Body Near Youby Heidi LedfordNatureApril 15th, 2015From kidneys to hands, 3D printers are churning out made-to-order bones and rudimentary organs.
DARPA, Synthetic Biology and Human Germline Engineering by Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesApril 9th, 2015The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is committed to synthetic biology as one of its four main project areas, and may be involved in human germline experiments.
The Next Manhattan Projectby Patrick TuckerThe AtlanticApril 7th, 2015Anticipating cutting-edge scientific research before it happens may be key to protecting against bioterrorism.
The Pentagon Is Putting Big Money Into Synthetic Biologyby Dan VerganoBuzzFeed NewsMarch 30th, 2015Genetically engineered bacteria, bionic limbs, and synthetic vaccines will help the U.S. build a more powerful military, according to DARPA, the Pentagon’s futuristic research arm.
The Brave New World of DNA Synthesisby Jeffrey MarlowWiredMarch 30th, 2015DNA synthesis companies range from scrappy start-ups to Cambridge-area behemoths, each touting a distinct set of tools that carves out a slice of the ever-increasing pie.
The Brave New World of DNA Synthesisby Jeffrey MarlowWiredMarch 30th, 2015DNA synthesis companies range from scrappy start-ups to Cambridge-area behemoths, each touting a distinct set of tools that carves out a slice of the ever increasing pie.
New DNA Tech: Creating Unicorns and Curing Cancer for Real?by David Ewing DuncanThe Daily BeastMarch 30th, 2015We have the earth-shattering technology in our hands—but even its inventors worry about its awesome power to alter our genetic future.
Who Needs a Synthetic Biological "Safety Lock"? by Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesFebruary 4th, 2015Two papers published simultaneously in Nature on January 21 describe a novel strategy for biocontainment, involving a strain of E. Coli that is dependent on a synthetic amino acid.
Scientists Develop Technique Aimed at Preventing Spread of Bio-Engineered Organismsby Andrew PollackThe New York TimesJanuary 21st, 2015Could genetically modified bacteria escape from a laboratory or fermentation tank and cause disease or ecological destruction? Two groups of scientists hope to use synthetic biology to prevent it from happening.
AI Has Arrived, and That Really Worries the World’s Brightest Mindsby Robert McMillanWiredJanuary 16th, 2015Artificial intelligence experts and other scientists warn that the "intelligence explosion" could spell doom for the human race.
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