Synthetic Biology and Ethics

Despite the myriad advances genetic engineering has made, there is still too much unknown for society to be comfortable with. What problems will there be with the environment? What will happen to us? Suicide genes, seedless crops, specific growth, all are safety measures to prevent genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from interfering with natural environmental conditions and causing adverse human health effects. These two facets of the unknown regime are the major roadblocks that come with this new territory. Synthetic Biology invariably must address these issues and make this new field as public as possible in order to quell these societal fears. Through things like the iGEM competition, the Synbiosafe documentary, and governmental initiatives awareness is rising and the scientific community is working to understand the future of GMOs in our society and the environment.


Our project must also investigate this topic due to its potential role in pollution control in the environment. There are many people that have worked on such systems and have very good results, like the breakdown of atrazine (a pesticide) by a strain of Escherichia coli.1 However, they did not propose a method of administering the bacteria. E. coli is a common bacteria and the sequences of atrazine (and poly-chlorinated biphenyl) degradation are natural sequences, but not to that host and potentially not to the environment where they are needed. In order to properly deal with this concern we have considered two options: pump the sediment/water to a facility where it can be treated with our bacterial system (ex situbioremediation) or to put our system into the environment where it can then act directly on the PCBs (in situbioremediation).2 There are obvious reasons for choosing either solution and with today’s outlook on releasing genetically modified (GM) bacteria into the environment, the former is the necessary choice, while the later would be much less costly. Due to the significantly lesser expenditure of releasing the system into the environment, with the proper safety measures and mode of approval, it could be possible.


In 2009 President Obama established the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (PCSBI) in order to thoroughly investigate bioethical issues that arise from advances in science and technology. Its first investigation (per President Obama’s request) was entitled “New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies” and was completed in December of 2010. The investigation covered a variety of fields and evaluated their application, benefits, and risks with respect to public beneficence, responsible stewardship, intellectual freedom and responsibility, democratic deliberation, and justice and fairness. They established similar risks that have already been stated: interference with the ecosystems, lack of control upon release/escape and production of an invasive species. They also mentioned suicide genes or kill switches to reduce these risks. However, the commission also deemed this area of in situbioremediation to be very unknown.3 Furthermore, due to the lack of evolutionary and ecological history of these novel species, the risks of their release and potential contamination cannot be confidently evaluated.4 Despite many concerns of the potential for GMOs to continue to evolve and create a host of new problems, Collins stated that if the synthetic organisms are permitted to further develop in the laboratory, they consistently evolve toward nonfunctionality.5 This result is promising, but is not likely true for all cases.


Another key concern is the potential for transfer of GM bacterial DNA to natural organisms in the environment of its introduction. This could likely occur by three different methods: transformation, conjugation, and transduction. The most probable form of horizontal gene transfer is transformation or the uptake of DNA from the environment, since the others require more similarities between the exchanging bacteria. In order to properly assess the risks of a purposeful release of recombinant bacteria into the wild, it is essential to fully understand the implications of horizontal gene transfer and how to deal with this issue.6 Including a gene that codes for a single or a set of restriction enzymes that will degrade the GM DNA would be ideal; however, there will always be the chance for GM DNA to escape and integrate into another species’ genome. Thus, despite whatever measures are put in place, if we release GMOs into the ecosystem, we are likely to add a new aspect to the biodiversity of the environment – however insignificant the addition may be. This is where the real debate comes from and why many people oppose this field. No matter how many laboratory studies are conducted, the actual environment result and consequences will not be known for certain until the GMO release is made. Even then it may take decades for a noticeable difference to be seen. Moreover, each case will be different based on the host organism, the GM genes specified, the environment of their release, and a variety of other factors. The only thing that can be done is proper risk assessment, safety measures to control the GMOs, plans for removal, and obtaining support through the proper environmental and governmental agencies. The fields of genetic engineering and synthetic biology are relatively new and have come a long way since their conception. The possibilities for advances in science and technology are great based on the research that has been done so far, and the integration of these new technologies into the environment to remove pollution or to reduce our environmental footprint as a society are great leaps, which seem quite possible with more investigation and time.


For more review on the promises of Synthetic Biology and the ethical implications they imply, visit the Presidential Commission of the Study of Bioethical Issues and read their review of Synthetic Biology.



1. Kirby, J.R. (2010). Synthetic biology: Designer bacteria degrades toxin. Nature Chemical Biology 6: 398-399.

2. de lorenzo, V. 2008. Systems biology approaches to bioremediation. Current Opinion in Biotechnology 19(6): 579-589;

3. Gutmann, A., et. al. 2010. New Directions: the Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. December, 2010.

4. Norton, B.G. 2010. Social Responsibility, Risk Assessment, and Ethics. Presentation to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, September 13, 2010.

5. Collins, J.J. 2010. Synthetic Biology: What New methods and Products are Being Developed? Presentation to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, September 13, 2010.

6. David, J. 1999. Genetic exchange between bacteria in the environment. Plasmid 42(2): 73-91.