Biosecurity and Open-Source Biology: The Promise and Peril of Distributed Synthetic Biological Technologies


In this article, we raise ethical concerns about the potential misuse of open-source biology (OSB): biological research and development that progresses through an organisational model of radical openness, deskilling, and innovation. We compare this organisational structure to that of the open-source software model, and detail salient ethical implications of this model. We demonstrate that OSB, in virtue of its commitment to openness, may be resistant to governance attempts.

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  1. 1.

    This is, admittedly, a simplification; there are a variety of ways in which different open-source projects might be more or less open. However, such a categorization is beyond the scope of our work. See, e.g., de Joode (2005), especially chapters one and two.

  2. 2.


  3. 3.

    We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out the initial ambiguity in our use of the term.

  4. 4.

    A number of views about the economics and social dynamics of this phenomena have been advanced that provide competing accounts of why this is, but for the sake of brevity we will provide a sketch only. Good introductions to the structure of open-source community include de Joode (2005), Weber (2004) and Hope (2005).

  5. 5.

    We leave this name as its hyperlink, to easily distinguish from “DIY bio.”

  6. 6.

    See, e.g., Carlson (2010). Carlson’s claims aren’t all that different from our description of emerging movements in synthetic biology; he argues that garage biology emerged from a longer intellectual heritage of “garage innovation.” He doubts the strength of the parallel between what he now calls “open biology” and open-source software, but his conclusions are primarily based on the types of legal license that can be justified in biology compared to software engineering. This, however, is not important for our analysis here (Hope 2005, p. 318).

  7. 7.

    That is not to say that OSB or the drive for openness is the only trend in the life sciences. There are other cultures of research that seek to utilize intellectual property to divide up the intellectual terrain, and view this as the right or best method for approaching the field. Broadly, the life sciences are experiencing a tension between the competing views of “complete openness” versus “patent everything.” Many thanks to Alison Wylie for bringing this point up in conversation.

  8. 8.

    This is a contested term, and while it has been used as such before we recognise its stipulative quality. See e.g., Carlson (2012).


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Correspondence to Nicholas G. Evans.

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Evans, N.G., Selgelid, M.J. Biosecurity and Open-Source Biology: The Promise and Peril of Distributed Synthetic Biological Technologies. Sci Eng Ethics 21, 1065–1083 (2015).

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  • Dual-use
  • Biotechnology
  • Open source
  • Bioterrorism
  • Biocrime
  • Openness
  • Deskilling