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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.


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.
Error or Terror: Controlling Emerging Technologyby John DrzikCNBCJanuary 15th, 2015We need to encourage innovation, but also set a course for rigorous risk governance of emerging technologies. It is much better to confront difficult issues now than endure disastrous consequences later.
Bad Boy Scientism by Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesJanuary 8th, 2015Austen Heinz of Cambrian Genomics has been spouting provocative opinions to get attention. And it seems to be working, from his point of view.
Controversial DNA Startup Wants to Let Customers Create Creatures[Quotes CGS's Marcy Darnovsky]by Stephanie M. LeeSan Francisco ChronicleJanuary 3rd, 2015With the latest technology and generous funding, a growing number of startups are taking science and medicine to the edge of science fiction.
2014 in Biomedicine: Rewriting DNA, Decoding the Brain, and a GMO Paradoxby Antonio RegaladoMIT Technology ReviewDecember 30th, 2014From genetically modified foods to gene therapy, 2014 was a big year for rewriting biology.
Biopolitical News of 2014by Pete Shanks, Jessica Cussins & Marcy DarnovskyBiopolitical TimesDecember 19th, 2014This is everything important that happened in biopolitics in 2014 (or close to it).
Top Biopolitical Times Posts of 2014by Jessica Cussins & Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesDecember 18th, 2014In 2014, CGS staffers and contributors posted 107 blogs in Biopolitical Times. These are twelve of our favorites.
Build a Pet Dinosaur or Your Perfect Childby Christine RosenSlateDecember 10th, 2014Synthetic biology entrepreneurs want each of us to become gods of our own creations.
CRISPR Opportunities … For What? And For Whom? by Pete ShanksBiopolitical TimesDecember 4th, 2014Money and deals are flowing into the companies founded on CRISPR technology, which promises to enable the precise editing of genomes.
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