Team:Macquarie Australia/Ethics


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The human practice component of our project aimed to investigate the perceptions that members of the public held regarding the field of synthetic biology and the ethical issues that surround it. In order to most effectively analyse these perceptions, we felt it necessary to identify the key ethical issues on which we would focus, and to ensure that we ourselves had a clear understanding of their relevance to the field of synthetic biology and to our project in particular. Below, we have discussed these issues in order to clarify the focus of our human practice efforts.

The ethics of synthetic biology is part of an ongoing larger debate on the ethics of all biotechnologies that are emerging at present. It has been argued that the prospect of constructing minimal and new genomes did not violate fundamental moral precepts or boundaries, but did raise questions about the possible consequences of synthesizing new free-living organisms in relation to the concept of life and our relation to it (Cho et al., 1999). The definition of what is life is becoming increasingly clouded, due to the multitude of interpretations that can be applied depending on the theoretical context in which it is used. A living organism can be seen as having a number of capacities that differentiate it from inorganic matter, such as metabolism, homeostasis, capacity to grow, reproduce and, through natural selection, adapt to its environment over successive generations (Gutmann, 2011). Ethical approaches to synthetic biology focus much more on consequential considerations and issues related to potential consequences from the use of synthetic biology for human beings; that is, risk assessment, management and hazard considerations (Gutmann, 2011). When the uncertainties are so profound how is it possible to accurately assess potential risks?



In July 2002, researchers at the State University of New York announced that they had synthesized the deadly and virulent polio virus (Cello et al., 2002). This event, which was criticized by scientists and ethicists alike, marked the first time an organism was created entirely from off-the-shelf materials and instructions. Researchers claimed the project was intended to illustrate the ease with which scientists could construct life or for would-be terrorists to construct bioweapons (Wimmer and Paul, 2011). Moreover, synthetic biology also represents the ability to construct artificial life forms that are not modelled on anything found in nature, and whose benefits and hazards are consequently only theoretical. There is no bioethical road map for constructing synthetic organisms one gene at a time (Wimmer and Paul, 2011).


Unplanned or unexpected interactions between synthetic organisms and the environment or naturally occurring organisms comprises a risk to both the environment and public health. At present, scientists do not yet fully understand how to synthesize organisms with conventional replication and mutation properties. Therefore, not only is the individual behaviour of an escaped organism difficult to foreknow and detect, but its effect on the natural world is also equally impossible to foretell. In addition, there is a risk of natural genome pool contamination and it is possible that synthetic organisms could transfer genes to natural organisms. Organisms released into the environment could initiate horizontal gene transfer and affect the biotic balance of an ecosystem, or evolve past their original function to elicit unexpected side effects.


Ethical issues arise particularly from the dangers of using synthetic lethal and virulent pathogens for terrorist attacks or biological warfare (Douglas and Savulescu, 2010). Bio weapons such as modified pathogenic viruses, bacteria or other synthetic organisms that have been engineered to produce toxins, are of major concern, increasingly so due to the accessibility of DNA sequence databases and DNA design software by the general public. As such, the ability to carry out DNA synthesis is no longer confined to trusted scientists, but rather anyone with adequate training and resources (Douglas and Savulescu, 2010). Thus, issues related to the freedom of science and censorship emerge, including the process of censorship decision-making applicable to the publishing of scientific results, for example, those that may produce virulent pathogens.


CELLO, J., PAUL, A. V. & WIMMER, E. 2002. Chemical synthesis of poliovirus cDNA: generation of infectious virus in the absence of natural template. Science, 297, 1016-1018.

CHO, M. K., MAGNUS, D., CAPLAN, A. L. & MCGEE, D. 1999. Ethical considerations in synthesizing a minimal genome. Science, 286, 2087-2090.

DOUGLAS, T. & SAVULESCU, J. 2010. Synthetic biology and the ethics of knowledge. Journal of medical ethics, 36, 687-693.

GUTMANN, A. 2011. The Ethics of Synthetic Biology: Guiding Principles for Emerging Technologies. Hastings Center Report, 41, 17-22.

WIMMER, E. & PAUL, A. V. 2011. Synthetic poliovirus and other designer viruses: what have we learned from them? Annual review of microbiology, 65.