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Human Practices Video Project

In order to provide a better view of synthetic biology from a less lab-based, and more of a thought-based approach, we talked to Professor Laurie Zoloth in the Northwestern Department of Bioethics. We gained some helpful insight on synthetic biology, and would like to share the experience with our visitors.

This project is part of a collaboration project with various other iGEM teams to create a bank of video topics on synthetic biology.

Below is a documentary of sorts. The format follows readable text and an interview with Professor Zoloth. Text is added to communicate what questions Professor Zoloth is addressing and what the iGEM team took from her statements on synthetic biology.

The iGEM team interviewed Professor Zoloth about what synthetic biology means at a higher level than just the application. Professor Zoloth has been on many governmental, educational, and other panels that have dealt with the issue of bioethics and synthetic biology before. Here's how she defines synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology is a revolutionary new field. Work on establishing the basis for this type of research is only just recently been completed. New, innovative, and powerful things are moving at breakneck speed in this field. With all of this progress, what should worry people about synthetic biology?

If science is able to focus and create these norms within the practice, what challenges face synthetic biology? Who decides these norms and its focus?

How science is done is meant to be questioned. Peer review is a large part of this; however, that system is not perfect. A strong norm of truthfulness and teamwork should run deep within the scientific community to be completely honest and truthful with their research. In order to ingrain such a powerful message into future scientists, it must be instilled at a very early age. This is one aspect of iGEM. The positive qualities Professor Zoloth looks for in good scientists can be thought of as instilled by the iGEM competition. As a team, iGEM members go through a rigorous research project that makes them rely on each other and produce the most honest portrayal of their work at the various jamborees.

Because the products of synthetic biology have a marketability, science must be careful to ensure that the results of research produce something useful. It must yield a better world and helpfulness to humanity. On a spiritual level, it questions what creation means. Often synthetic biology is meant to help people from different parts of the world. They may view the creation of a new organism different than a different culture. These questions must be asked as well.

If synthetic biology has all of this potential for both public good and private exploitation, who is meant to regulate this field?

This part of the video addresses the fact that the public need to be a part of the scientific process. This means that the public must be educated about the things happening in the lab, and scientists need to write more for non-academic settings. This common understanding at the basic level between the two groups should allow increased discussion between the two groups and allow the public greater access to the science being conducted in the lab. Hopefully the public can then assist the scientists in discussing what happens in the lab, and have the final products assist them in the greatest capacity.

What other questions do we need to address to conduct proper public-oriented science?

This gives some more meaning to the regulatory agencies. If science were only monitored and questioned by other scientists, research would be out of touch with what is important to the public. Like Professor Zoloth stated, science is constantly shifting the social boundaries that society has erected, and it is the job of philosophers and others to wonder about these changes.

It is good that others ought to think about this. So what guidelines should oversee synthetic biology?

This theory is that scientist should self regulate themselves to perform their jobs to the most honest way possible. This needs to be instilled early, perhaps in the undergraduate years. Being a good scientists means working as a team and performing to the best of their abilities. If a strong set of norms act as a deterrent enough to prevent the deviation from being completely honest. A culture of honesty and truthfulness would be great for research science, and hopefully reflect well in the minds of the public.

Who decides what projects are funded?

If government is both the protector and regulator of scientific funding, they should be part of the decision making process. The people who have the most to gain should also have the most to see lost in the failures and mistakes of science in their filed if they completed a large part of the decision making in the lab. Risk should be considered in this way if there is to be consequences to a failure of a project. However, a body that decides who bears the most responsibility is still to come forth.

How does the public decide what projects to focus on?

There are many moral questions to be asked during the study of synthetic biology. These arise and question the very morals and values that people hold so dear. Synthetic biology deals with creation and this may bring these morals and values under scrutiny and question culture and religion. Such questions have come since the beginning of human thought, and continue to do so to this day.

Do you have any closing points to make?

At this time, the Northwestern iGEM team would like to extend our thanks to Professor Zoloth for her time and her unique perspective on Bioethics.