Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Director of The Hastings Center Poses Ethical ? about Synthentic Biology

Serendipity: A prominent ethicist is also thinking about synthetic biology at this moment.

Thomas Murray: Dir., The Hastings Center

Risk, Reward, Regulation and Synthetic Biology: The Ethical Questions
Environmental clean-up, medications with fewer side effects, improved food supplies-do the theoretical benefits of synthetic biology suggest we forge ahead on the basis of promise?

Or, do we focus on risks, such as unintended contamination or intentional weaponization, and hold back in the face of uncertainty?

And how do we navigate regulation between these different perspectives and mind-sets?


  1. When creating new products, there will ALWAYS be risks involved. Without testing and verifying the validity of something, we cannot confidently say it will impose no harm. I think with emerging new advancements, people need to be skeptical in order to ensure safety, however, we cannot be so closed minded either. Sometimes I feel the fear of the unknown can overshadow people's drive for trying something new. Today's technological and medical advancements were achieved through trial-and-error, so in order to test the theoretical benefits of synthetic biology, I think people need to be hopeful and optimistic yet aware of any possible side effects.

  2. As we create and bring about new ideas and new components, there always seem to be others questioning the safety, benefits and risks. However does this mean we should stop looking into new inventions or ways of doing things? In particular if these things deal with the safety or health of individuals and life. There are always critics along the way, which could always be helpful in testing out the efficacy of these discoveries. Many new innovations such as in the field of synthetic biology have to go through a lot of testing for validation and for the analysis of benefits versus risks. There are always risks to testing and implementing these new synthetic biological components, however there could always be a greater benefit compared to the risk. We just have to measure out the benefits and risks and to see what generates a greater proportion to the population. If we always hesitate and only focus on the risks we are not only holding back in the face of uncertainty, but we hesitate on discovering approaches that could potentially provide the general public and the natural world with help and greater good.
    -Stephanie Joe

  3. The question of weather to go ahead with synthetic biology or to essentially ban society from experimenting with such technology does not elicit a clear go or no response; both sides hold viable arguments. If society does go ahead with synthetic biology, the opportunities are endless and unknown until experimented with. This technology holds the promise for cures for cancer and solutions to our biggest environmental woes. These terrible issue that our society faces daily could very well be our Achilles tendon so to speak. Why not try everything possible to better our society. We still face a looming environmental change of proportions yet to be seen (but if the past is any sign of our future, our future is bleak), and the brightest minds of our medical community have yet to find a way to effectively combat cancer. The products of synthetic biology could greatly help other, following the core ethical principle of beneficence. On the contrary, synthetic biology has the potential to due great harm. Just as it could produce a cure for cancer, a disease that kills thousands, it could also produce a super virus or sorts, with potential to kill millions. This virus could potentially have no natural enemy or protection and by the time a possible enemy is created through synthetic biology, it could be too late for the human population. The benefits and risks associated with synthetic biology are clearly huge. However, I do not think it is fair to box up the promise of the benefits to society that could come from furthering our work in synthetic biology. When a man is brought into the emergency room in a dire state, everything is done to save that man’s life. When a baby is born, he is given countless vaccinations to protect him. Why should not everything, including the development of synthetic biology, be done to save and protect our society from harm?

  4. Today there are so many people against synthetic biology but the truth is we have come so far today using this idea of engineering and biology. Of course there are always risks in trying these things and sometimes bad outcomes occur but when things do prove to work they are considered great inventions that help improve our society, our health care, and many other aspects of our lives. Our biology is one thing and yes, we have to work with what we have been given but we cannot stay close-minded and say that's it. We need to keep experimenting with synthetic biology and see where it takes us because you never know the things that might come from it...perhaps the cure for cancer or HIV/AIDS. I do see the point that people against this idea have that it may hurt our environment more or that there have been more bad outcomes than good ones but really the advancements that can be made with synthetic biology are endless and I do not think that we should sit and watch people die of things that could have been solved because of advancements with synthetic biology. More and more diseases are going to arise and just as our biology changes on us and more obstacles for a longer life come up we need to keep going with advancements in synthetic biology to keep up with these changes and perhaps solve all of the difficulties that arise.

  5. I believe that if scientists forgo experimenting with new technology because there are inherent risks associated with testing these technologies, society as a whole cannot advance. Sure, there are many unknowns and yes, there are a variety of concerns. But even if we decide not to continue researching synthetic biology, there will still be greater issues that the world must, at some point, face. We are living during an era of exponential population growth, and as a society, we must figure out different ways to effectively accommodate this rapid population growth. Invariably, with greater increases in population size, there will be a greater incidence of cancer and other diseases. How will we meet the increased demand for medical services that can treat these diseases if we do not seek out technological advancements? With any new technology or power comes great risk and also great responsibility. I believe that as long as we act prudently with testing these new forms of technology, we will suffer few adverse consequences.

  6. The advancements of society today have sprouted from the decision to take a risk and venture into a new topic of which the consequences are unknown. As Matt said, without these risks, society would not have been able to advance.

    In this light, the risk-benefit analysis is important when considering what technologies should be investigated, and those that shouldn't. Does it seem ethical from our standpoint today that such technologies as the atom-bomb were investigated and invented? Synthetic biology, like any other advanced technology will come with inherent risks and benefits. However, it would appear that predicting possible benefits would be easier than predicting consequences.

    Given the history and the situation, one must weigh the perceived benefits and risks, but one must take into account those that are unforeseen. There may be a potential benefit of synthetic biology that no one could have predicted. That way, it may be doing more harm than good to avoid investigating the technology. In essence, it is better for risks to be taken in order to reach for possible benefits.