Nora Schultz, research officer at the German Ethics Council's office in Berlin, presented an introductory paper outlining the current status and ethical aspects of this still young field of research.
Synthetic biology involves the design of biological elements and systems with the aid of standardized components and engineering principles. With the progress of genome research and technology since the turn of the millennium and especially in the last five years, large-scale automated DNA analysis and gene synthesis have become financially viable, and the precise technical design and production of entire biological systems is now a tangible prospect for the relatively near future.
The principal objectives of synthetic biology extend from the artificial replication and modification of complex biological functional systems and the development of novel biomolecules to the creation of entire synthetic organisms that have very little in common with their natural models.
The ethical aspects of synthetic biology concern in particular the possible implications of the creation of artificial life for our attitude towards life in general, as well as the risks associated with unintended interactions between artificial organisms and the natural environment or with the deliberate misuse of synthetically produced organisms.
However, as the ensuing discussion confirmed, these issues are not fundamentally new, but are characteristic of a trend that commenced in the nineteenth century with the synthesis of natural substances and elevated our approach to nature to a new qualitative level. They also arise in connection with other biotechnological developments, albeit in a new dimension. Admittedly, though, it is not yet possible to predict when specific new principles will be established for this field. In considering the prospects presented by synthetic biology, the main requirements will be to avoid biological reductionism and to view the discipline in the overall context of biotechnology research.
While continuing its attentive monitoring of developments in synthetic biology, the Ethics Council does not for the time being consider it necessary to include the subject in its work programme.