Synthetic Biology: Ethical and Social Challenges

Division of Medical Ethics, New York University Langone Medical Center


The promise of synthetic biology is enormous. The technology can be used to help solve some of the greatest challenges now facing humanity including the production of more food, energy, clean water, and safer, more effective vaccines and medicines. The technology required involves the genetic modification of viruses, bacteria, and microbes and that raises numerous ethical questions. Is there adequate regulatory oversight, environmental protection, and vigilance against the misuse of the technology by amateurs or terrorists? Other concerns involve the moral acceptability of creating novel life forms. In grappling with both types of issues there is, as yet, no consensus on which principled moral stance that is appropriate: precaution or prudence.