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Ethical and regulatory challenges raised by synthetic biology

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The ethical aspects of synthetic biology

A recent EU-funded project looked at the ethical, legal and social implications of synthetic biology (SB) research.


A vibrant scientific field, SB has significant potential for practical applications and public benefit. Although known to combine engineering and biology, its exact definition is still unclear due to overlapping of several disciplines. A question for consideration is whether a new set of research ethics should be defined for the field. An EU-funded project called 'Ethical and regulatory challenges raised for synthetic biology' (SYNTH-ETHICS) aimed to answer this question. The team included experts in the areas of ethics, technology assessment and law. They took into consideration the needs of end users, policymakers, scientists, engineers and the general public. The ethical issues associated with SB overlap in part with other biotechnology fields. These issues include dealing with risk, safety and security. Analyses revealed that frameworks associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are also applicable to SB, although they may need slight modifications. One of the major problems associated with SB is dual-use research, where research intended to be beneficial could also be used for harmful purposes. Recommendations to address this issue include introducing incentives to refrain from and report dangerous activities. In addition, strict monitoring through the establishment of governmental clearing houses to check databases for DNA sequence requests and surveillance institutions may prove effective. This SYNTH-ETHICS investigation has encouraged the development of a better informed public when it comes to SB. It has also contributed significantly to a more adequate and practical approach to the ethical aspects of new technologies.

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