The Uses And Potential Misuses of Synthetic Biology

Submitted by Pernelle Chan to fulfill the ethics in science requirement for the Young Scientist Program at BMSIS.


With the rapid evolution of both technology and science, researchers and experts in a vast number of fields have been looking to create innovative, biological technologies that can benefit society (or to make a profit). One of the key realms of this innovation lies in the rising popularity of the field of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is the creation or engineering of organisms. Because each creation bears its own nuances and purposes, the limitations for this particular field are still relatively unknown and many possibilities for its application appear especially compelling. From improvements in agriculture and treating pollution to new developments in materials science and medicine, synthetic biology offers a number of positive impacts on human civilization. Yet, as with many other cutting-edge technologies, the ethics behind its use and potential misuse must be seriously considered and understood before it can be safely utilized in ways that would benefit society.

Scope of Synthetic Biology

 The design of organisms through synthetic biology can be completely novel, but they can also be recreated versions of organisms that already exist. For the latter – because they are engineered – organisms have the possibility of being manipulated in ways that may be positive or negative. This includes making existing viruses and bacteria more harmful. In other cases, synthetic biology is used to manipulate biological machinery. Cells may be changed to create new proteins and enzymes which can then be used to better understand not only cellular pathways but also the origins of life. Other applications include creating organisms to replace animals for drug testing, restoring unbalanced ecosystems, generating sustainable biofuels, or directly targeting cancers.

Ethical Problems

“Life” versus machines

Are the products of synthetic biology truly life? Although they may check off all the requirements for “living”, they do not naturally originate from the environment. Are they then simply machines: lifeforms that exist through human manipulation and programming? If so, does this matter? In the presence of synthetic biology, our characterizations of what is and is not life may or may not need to be modified.

Overstepping life

It may be interesting to consider the odds that through synthetic biology we may generate an entity of life that could occur naturally in the future through evolution. This brings us to question whether we place more value on maintaining or on influencing the course of nature. Some would argue that meddling with what we know to be naturally occurring constitutes the role of “playing God”. No living being has been able to create life from inorganic matter but if synthetic biology makes that feasible, then people may consider this to be overstepping human limitations and harboring the power to control or “rise above” nature.

Misuse of technology

As mentioned earlier, synthetic biology makes it possible for some organisms to be manipulated into states that are more harmful to humans. It is possible for the technologies of synthetic biology to fall into the hands of those who hold malicious intent. Proper protocol is needed to help prevent this from happening. If the products of synthetic biology begin to pose a threat to citizens around the world, we will need to know the ways in which to mitigate the consequences as quickly and efficiently as possible. The United States Department of Defense has already ordered the development of a security concern framework in 2018, to both anticipate and respond to possible threats that could arise from advances in synthetic biology. These discussions have been occurring since early 2017 and will very likely continue on into the future, both in the USA as well as in many other nations.

However, given such possibility for corruption, the question arises of whether this technology should be developed at all in the first place. Synthetic biology has shown potential for good in alternative fields such as medicine, public health, and commerce. This includes targeted vaccines, modified crops with essential vitamins for impoverished children, as well as oil-producing yeasts to substitute for flowers in the perfume industry. With the potential for the benefit to outweigh the risk, the question then becomes how this technology should be protected in a way that is fair.

Creation versus utilization of technology

The responsibilities of scientists in the outcome of their research and creations come to light when discussing the morality of synthetic biology. One side claims that those who decide how to use novel creations are responsible as opposed to the scientists who developed these creations. Scientists may often not be experts in the fields of ethics and politics, and some argue that bioethicists and legislators hold greater authority on such matters. On the other hand, exempting scientists from responsibility enables them to proceed with developing any kind of knowledge, potentially even in cases with evident possibilities of misuse by the general public. For example, this issue draws some similarities to the gun industry in America. There is widespread conversation about the role of gun manufacturers in gun violence. Current debate focuses on interventions targeting individuals who commit the crime, and some will argue that this leaves out the industry responsible for the presence of guns in civilian communities. Preventing criminal activity is important but the policies that allow access to the products involved in crimes is just as important to acknowledge. Oftentimes, scientists are praised for works that bring about positive outcomes in the world, so it would not follow if one were to assert that they do not have some responsibility once the circumstances become unfavorable.

Dissemination of the technology

One of the major issues regarding this technology is about who will have access to synthetic biological information. Decisions about who to place in control of the experimental proceedings and the findings of these experiments is not directly defined, and even if a functional system was established, there is no telling about its sustainability. It only takes one party with ill intent to collapse the entire system. Regardless of any arrangements for emerging knowledge to be free to access by the public domain or to be protected through some means, such as a paywall for example, opposition from the public domain is inevitable. Once knowledge reaches the public domain, people may be able to utilize this knowledge for the betterment of society through decreasing animal testing, improving human livelihood, and many other humanitarian acts; however, it is possible that some may escape the formal regulations for private, ambiguous purposes.


Does gaining knowledge outweigh the possible dangers of further developing and releasing synthetic biology into the world? It depends on the careful consideration of many ethical issues stemming from the technology itself, as well as serious planning for its effect on all the disciplines that synthetic biology has the capacity to influence. Ultimately, the root of these questions deals with ethical philosophical frameworks such as deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. This requires a thorough review of not only the ethical problems previously presented, but also any other additional questions that are important to life in the biological sense. Is future misuse of the technology relevant if the products of synthetic biology can be used to improve lives in the present? Certain standpoints on future misuse of the technology may be controversial, but all opinions must be heard in the discussion in order to come to any kind of compromise involving the potential for good. If the technology is comprehensive enough to influence industries from medicine to agriculture, then it is not difficult to conclude that the economic effects of synthesized organisms may eventually impact your average citizen or small business owner. It may be worth questioning whether synthetic biological products could potentially put people out of work and if we have the necessary resources to prevent this from happening.

Considering the bigger picture of our relationship with nature, there is concern about what synthetic biology means for human relationships with other organisms on earth. How do we prevent disastrous conflicts between our “creations” and the environment, and is there a point at which we will have gone too far in adapting nature to our needs? It may be simpler to brush all these questions under the rug of speculation. However, there needs to be accountability for every innovation that can potentially change the world. As the scientific community, we must do our part in seriously considering these questions in order to move forward responsibly.

Although justice is incredibly important and relevant to issues pertaining to human welfare, it may be more straightforward and make more sense to approach the use of synthetic biology – a kind of technology – with a consequentialist philosophical approach. More specifically, we should be guiding our development, protection, and use of synthetic biology with the concept of weighing the benefits against the consequences. Technologies are constantly evolving and changing, and innovation requires flexibility and creativity. Because of this, how we deal with the philosophical value of synthetic biology should reflect this foundation as well. Adhering to strict rules of deontology can be incredibly limiting, and if we were to consider synthetic biology through those lenses, it would most likely recommend that we not move forward with synthetic biology development for fear of harm and meddling with nature. However, it would be difficult to be comfortable with this position in light of the possibilities for medical therapies and treatments that could cure dire diseases. On the other hand, virtue ethics is yet another compelling framework to approach synthetic biology with. The concern is that dilemmas raised through this approach will require substantial debate on the many ethical problems previously presented, likely without any proper resolution on account of the vast and varying opinions that exist. Virtue ethics relies on cultural perceptions of value and character. Given the diversity of cultural and societal backgrounds around the globe, having the discussion become entrenched in a match of morals would likely become counterproductive and time consuming. A cost-benefit approach appears to be most appealing and efficient, and it is recommended that the scientific community spearhead the discussion on synthetic biology with this approach, allowing the discourse to continue on from there.



Pernelle Chan is a second-year student at the University of California, Davis interested in health, medicine, and research. When she is not in student-mode, you may find her playing various musical instruments, cooking or baking, daydreaming about travel, or figuring out whether she can incorporate cheese into her next meal.