Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 121–127 | Cite as

Integrating ethical analysis “Into the DNA” of synthetic biology

  • Patrick HeaveyEmail author
Scientific Contribution


Current ethical analysis tends to evaluate synthetic biology at an overview level. Synthetic biology, however, is an umbrella term that covers a variety of areas of research. These areas contain, in turn, a hierarchy of different research fields. This abstraction hierarchy—the term is borrowed from engineering—permits synthetic biologists to specialise to a very high degree. Though synthetic biology per se may create profound ethical challenges, much of the day-to-day research does not. Yet seemingly innocuous research could lead to ethically problematic results. For example, Dolly the sheep resulted from a long series of research steps, none of which presented any ethical problems. The atomic bomb was developed as a result of Einstein’s uncontentions theoretical research that proved the equivalence of matter and energy. Therefore it would seem wise for ethicists to evaluate synbio research across its subfields and through its abstraction hierarchies, comparing and inter-relating the various areas of research. In addition, it would be useful if journals that publish synbio papers require an ethical statement from authors, as standard practice, so as to encourage scientists to constantly engage with ethical issues in their work. Also, this would allow an ethical snapshot of the state of the research at any given time to exist, allowing for accurate evaluation by scientists and ethicists, regulators and policymakers.


Synthetic biology ethics Policy Law Methodology Biosafety Bioterror 


  1. Baldwin, G., et al. 2012. Synthetic biology: A primer. London: Imperial College Press.Google Scholar
  2. Bergman, G. 2009. Goldman school portal takes the worry out of ‘experiments of concern:’ New site aims to warn synthetic biologists when the fruits of their research could include biosecurity risks. UC Berkeley News 2nd April. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  3. Canton, B. undated. Abstraction hierarchies. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  4. Cao, H., et al. 2010. Evolving cell models for systems and synthetic biology. Systems and Synthetic Biology 4: 54–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Che, A. 2007. Biological layer abstraction and standards hierarchy v. 8. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  6. Che, A. undated. Abstraction hierarchy network layer model. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  7. Cho, M.K., et al. 1999. Ethical considerations in synthesizing a minimal genome. Science 286(5447): 2087–2090.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Committee on Responsibilities of Authorship in the Biological Sciences. 2003. Sharing publication-related data and materials: Responsibilities of authorship in the life sciences. Washington DC: The National Academies Press. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  9. Douglas, T., and J. Savulescu. 2010. Synthetic biology and the ethics of knowledge. Journal of Medical Ethics 36: 687–693.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Drubin, D.A., et al. 2007. Designing biological systems. Genes and Development 21: 242–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dyson, F. 2009. When science and poetry were friends. The New York Review of Books August 13th. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  12. Elert, G. 2012. Nuclear weapons. In The physics hypertextbook, ed. G. Elert. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  13. Endy, D. 2005. Foundations of engineering biology. Nature 438: 449–453.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. ETC Group 2007. Extreme genetic engineering: An introduction to synthetic biology. Ottowa, ON: ETC Group. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  15. Experiments of Concern Portal FAQs (undated). Accessed July 15th 2013.
  16. Gibson, D.G., et al. 2010. Creation of a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome. Science 329: 52–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hasty, J. 2010. Genetic clocks from engineered oscillators. Presentation, International Conference in Synthetic Biology: Bottom-up, Top-down and Cell-free Approaches, Intellectual Property Issues. Genopole, Evry, France, 15–16th December.Google Scholar
  18. Hayden, E. 2009. Experiments of concern to be vetted online. Nature 457: 643.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Häyry, M., et al. 2006. Ethicalization in bioscience—A pilot study in Finland. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 15: 282–284.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Imperial College London, Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation. 2014. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  21. Jaramillo, A. 2010. Computational design and characterisation of small gene networks with targeted behaviour in E.coli. Presentation, International Conference in Synthetic Biology: Bottom-up, Top-down and Cell-free Approaches, Intellectual Property Issues. Genopole, Evry, France, 15–16th December.Google Scholar
  22. Jones-Prather, K.L. 2010. Parts, devices and chassis in support of metabolic engineering. Presentation, International Conference in Synthetic Biology: Bottom-up, Top-down and Cell-free Approaches, Intellectual Property Issues. Genopole, Evry, France, 15–16th December.Google Scholar
  23. King’s College London Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation. 2014. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  24. Levskaya, A., et al. 2005. Synthetic biology: Engineering Escherichia coli to see light. Nature 438: 441–442.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Maurer, S.M. 2011. End of the beginning or beginning of the end? Synthetic biology’s stalled security agenda and the prospects for restarting it. Valparaiso University Law Review 45(4): 75–132.Google Scholar
  26. Møller, B.L. 2012. Light driven synthesis of complex molecules. Presentation, Applied Synthetic Biology in Europe Conference, Barcelona, 6–8th February.Google Scholar
  27. Nathan, O., and H. Norden (eds.). 1968. Einstein on Peace. New York, NY: Schoken Books.Google Scholar
  28. Parens, E., et al. 2009. Ethical issues in synthetic biology: An overview of the debates. Garrison: The Hastings Center. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  29. Patra, S.K., and S. Mishra. 2006. Bibliometric study of bioinformatics literature. Scientometrics 67: 477–489.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Polizzi, K. 2011. Biosensors for bioprocessing. Presentation, Imperial College Systems and Synthetic Biology Annual Autumn Symposium, London, November 16–17th.Google Scholar
  31. Porcar, M. 2010. Beyond directed evolution: Darwinian evolution as a tool for synthetic biology. Systems and Synthetic Biology 4: 1–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. 2012. New directions: The ethics of synthetic biology and emerging technologies. Washington: Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.Google Scholar
  33. Ruth, C., et al. 2010. Variable production windows for porcine trypsinogen employing synthetic inducible promoter variants in Pichiapastoris. Systems and Synthetic Biology 4: 181–191.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Sainani, K. 2008. Mining biomedical literature: Using computers to extract knowledge nuggets. Biomedical Computation Review July, 16–27.Google Scholar
  35. Sanderson, K. 2009. Synthetic biology gets ethical: UK centre hopes to blend science, policy and outreach in burgeoning field. Nature News 12th May. doi: 10.1038/news.2009.464.
  36. Savulescu, J. 2012. Master the new loom before life’s tapestry unravels at our hands. The Times Higher Education 9th April. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  37. 2014. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  38. Conferences. 2014. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  39. The Biopunk Directory. 2013. Accessed August 14th 2014.
  40. The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies to the European Commission [EGE Group]. 2009. Ethical aspects of synthetic biology. Luxembourg: European Communities.Google Scholar
  41. Thompson, P.B. 2012. Synthetic biology needs a synthetic bioethics. Ethics, Policy and Environment 15(1): 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Ventura, B. 2005. Mandatory submission of microarray data to public repositories: How is it working? Physiological Genomics 20: 153–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Wohlson, M. 2011. Biopunk: DIY scientists hack the software of life. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, School of LawUniversity of ManchesterManchesterUK

Personalised recommendations