By Samuel W. Anderson

If you spend more than a few minutes reading about synthetic biology - and I mean reading press, not academic journals - you will invariably find some reference to the field's 'do-it-yourself' component. It's easy to think of synthetic biology as the next step in 'playing God,' but there is a lot more going on beyond the broad ethical "should we really be doing this?" concerns.

Not everyone thinks that we should plow forward, but there are reasons that we don't see serious campaigns for moratoriums on research and application of synthetic biology as compared to, for instance, genetically modified foods. For one, most people simply do not know much about synthetic biology. If you would have asked me a year ago what a BioBrick is, I probably would have thought it was something from a health food store (not that you didn't already know, but BioBricks are actually DNA sequences which can be assembled into customized genetic code and inserted into organisms to construct entirely new biological systems). I don't mind telling you that because I had plenty of company: in this issue Eleonore Pauwels cites a 2008 study in which 90% of Americans said they knew little to nothing about synthetic biology.

Another reason synthetic biology has not drawn much rabid criticism is that its potential benefits hold tantalizing promise. Whereas GM foods are often seen - correctly - as being mostly propagated by a handful of profit-seeking transnational corporations, synthetic biology is becoming increasingly accessible, to the point that groups such as New York University's DIYbio NYC specifically seek to make synthetic biology available to "citizen scientists" and "amateur biologists."

This open access to a potentially dangerous technology demonstrates the need for careful attention to synthetic biology's governance and regulation. This will only become more important with the further development of the technology - and, with it, the amplified ambitions of the new bioengineers. It's safe to say that no one is anywhere near capable of literally producing blackbirds from scratch in a petri dish.

Nevertheless, with the U.S. Department of Defense already suggesting the utility of creating an immortal organism with a built-in 'off' switch - and setting aside $26 million of next year's budget for synthetic biology and BioDesign programs - the metaphor on this cover may not be so farfetched.

Search: GeneWatch
For centuries, human societies have divided population groups into separate races. While there is no scientific basis for this, people unquestioningly accept these classifications as fact.
View Project
The Council for Responsible Genetics’ Genetic Privacy Manual: Understanding the Threats- Understanding Your Rights will be a comprehensive, electronic source of information for the consumer on these issues.
View Project