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The New Worlds of Synthetic Biology—Synopsis

A diverse and dynamic field that should not be judged as a whole but rather by its specific new features.

Part of the Ethics of Science and Technology Assessment book series (ETHICSSCI,volume 44)

Abstract

Synthetic biology is a young and heterogeneous field that is constantly on the move. This makes societal evaluation of synthetic biology a challenging task and prone to misunderstandings. Confusions arise not only on the level of what part of synthetic biology the discussion is on, but also on the level of the underlying concepts in use: concepts, for example, of life or artificiality. Instead of directly reviewing the field as a whole, in the first step we therefore focus on characteristic features of synthetic biology that are relevant to the societal discussion. Some of these features apply only to parts of synthetic biology, whereas others might be relevant for synthetic biology as a whole. In the next step we evaluate these new features with respect to the different areas of synthetic biology: do we have the right words and categories to talk about these new features? In the third step we scrutinize traditional concepts like “life” and “artificiality” with regard to their discriminatory power. Lastly, we utilize this refined view for ethical evaluation, risk assessment, analysis of public perception and legal evaluation. This approach will help to differentiate the discussion on synthetic biology. By this we will come to terms with the societal impact of synthetic biology.

Keywords

  • Synthetic Biology
  • Environmental Ethic
  • Intellectual Property Right
  • Artificial Living
  • Standard Genetic Code

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The term “create” is used by a number of protagonists of the field, as well as “make’’, “redesign’’, “construct’’. We discuss the normative level of these expressions in Chap. 5 of this book.

  2. 2.

    E.g. Craig Venter's ethics group (Cho et al. 1999); SynBerc Human Practices (Rabinow and Bennett 2009).

  3. 3.

    On the conference “Synthetic Biology 2.0: The Second International Meeting on Synthetic Biology May 20−22, 2006 at UC Berkeley” a biosecurity resolution was discussed: http://syntheticbiology.org/SB2.0/Biosecurity_resolutions.html. Accessed 18 July 2015. At the end no action on self-governance was taken.

  4. 4.

    Therefore, ethicists and sociologists have soon had to reflect their roles within the emerging technology (Rabinow and Bennett 2009, 2012; Calvert and Martin 2009). This is a phenomenon known from other science and technology fields characterised by such early concomitant research (cf. nanotechnology, see Schummer 2011). Synthetic biology has also become a case study object for secondary research about policy advice.

  5. 5.

    For an exception, see Rabinow and Bennett (2009).

  6. 6.

    “The First International Meeting on Synthetic Biology’’ 10.-12.6.2004 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge (MIT), MA, USA, http://syntheticbiology.org/Synthetic_Biology_1.0.html (accessed on 14 May 2013). This was when the ideas about how to revolutionize the use of open source and engineering principles in genetic engineering Endy (2005) were first presented by their protagonists. Other research lines as for example protocell research that now are commonly included under the synthetic biology umbrella term have their own roots.

  7. 7.

    The provided information is based on a non-public expertise conducted by Margret Engelhard and Kristin Hagen for the German Parliament. The expertise (duration: 2/2012–12/2012) is based on qualitative interviews with leading scientists from within synthetic biology, scientists that research on synthetic biology and active artists. Main content of the interviews were the current status of synthetic biology, its framing (also in comparison to genetic engineering), on xenobiology and protocell research, the individual research agendas, the role of DIY-biology and questions on potential risks.

  8. 8.

    Results interviews see FN above and Table 3.1, Chap. 3.

  9. 9.

    This was stated on one strategy of the conference in the welcome address of Drew Endy at the “SB5.0: the Fifth International Meeting on Synthetic Biology” held at the Stanford University, Stanford, California USA, June 15–17, 2011.

  10. 10.

    Results interviews, see FN 7.

  11. 11.

    The Poverty of Historicism Boston: Beacon Press (1957), p. 21.

  12. 12.

    For reviews and recent data, see Ancillotti and Eriksson (in production 2016, about media coverage in Italy and Sweden) and Seitz (in production 2016, about media coverage in Germany).

  13. 13.

    A definition of CMO is provided in Budisa (2014).

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Engelhard, M. et al. (2016). The New Worlds of Synthetic Biology—Synopsis. In: Engelhard, M. (eds) Synthetic Biology Analysed. Ethics of Science and Technology Assessment, vol 44. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-25145-5_1

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