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Synthetic biology: Is ethics a showstopper?

December 03, 2008

WASHINGTON - Synthetic biology promises to enable cheap, lifesaving new drugs to treat the 350-500 million people who suffer from malaria, and to create innovative biofuels that can help solve the world's energy problems. But the science and its applications are raising questions: Are synthetic biologists playing God? Are these scientists purposely changing the definition of what is life? Are synthetic biology researchers unintentionally equipping terrorists with frightening new biological weapons? And will synthetic biology's expected products and profits be stymied by policymakers and the public who object to researchers' soon-to-be-realized attempts to build life from scratch in a lab?

Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, will explore unresolved synthetic biology ethical questions at a January 8 program with Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Chief Science Advisor Andrew Maynard. Dr. Caplan is at the forefront of ethicists, theologians, scientists, engineers, government leaders and civil society groups working to weigh synthetic biology's potential risks and benefits.

Caplan is the author or editor of 25 books and over 500 articles in professional medical, science and bioethics journals. He has served on a number of national and international committees including as chair of the National Cancer Institute Biobanking Ethics Group, and chair of the Advisory Committee to the United Nations on Human Cloning. His most recent book is Smart Mice, Not So Smart People (Rowman Littlefield, 2006).

The Rathenau Instituut, a unit of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), describes synthetic biology as the convergence of molecular biology, information technology and nanotechnology, leading to the systematic design of biological systems. The U.S. is considered the world leader in this emerging field of science. Some estimate that by 2015, a fifth of the chemical industry (worth $1.8 trillion) could be dependent on synthetic biology.

To attend this event, RSVP to nano@wilsoncenter.org. No RSVP is required to view the Web cast.

*** Web cast LIVE at www.wilsoncenter.org ***

What: Synthetic Biology: Is Ethics a Showstopper?

When: Thursday, January 8, 2009, 12:30 - 1:30 PM (Light lunch available at 12 noon.)

Who: Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., Chair, Department of Medical Ethics and Director, Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania
Andrew Maynard, Ph.D., Chief Science Advisor, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Moderator

Where: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 5th Floor Conference Room in the Ronald Reagan Building at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC. For directions see: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/directions
-end-
The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies was launched in 2005 by the Wilson Center and The Pew Charitable Trusts. It is a partnership dedicated to helping business, governments, and the public anticipate and manage the possible health and environmental implications of nanotechnology. To learn more about the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, visit www.nanotechproject.org.

Media planning to cover the event should contact Colin Finan at (202) 691-4321 or at colin.finan@wilsoncenter.org.

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars/Science and Technology Innovation Program

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Cell-free synthetic biology comes of age
In a review paper published in Nature Reviews Genetics, Professor Michael Jewett explores how cell-free gene expression stands to help the field of synthetic biology dramatically impact society, from the environment to medicine to education.
Scientists develop electrochemical platform for cell-free synthetic biology
Scientists at the University of Toronto (U of T) and Arizona State University (ASU) have developed the first direct gene circuit to electrode interface by combining cell-free synthetic biology with state-of-the-art nanostructured electrodes.
Gene-OFF switches tool up synthetic biology
Wyss researchers and their colloaborators have developed two types of programmable repressor elements that can switch off the production of an output protein in synthetic biology circuits by up to 300-fold in response to almost any triggering nucleotide sequence.
Tennessee researchers join call for responsible development of synthetic biology
Engineering biology is transforming technology and science. Researchers in the international Genome Project-write, including two authors from the UTIA Center for Agricultural Synthetic Biology, outline the technological advances needed to secure a safe, responsible future in the Oct.
Scientists chart course toward a new world of synthetic biology
A UC Berkeley team with NSF funding has compiled a roadmap for the future of synthetic or engineering biology, based on the input of 80 leaders in the field from more than 30 institutions.
DFG presents position paper on synthetic biology
Clear distinction between synthetic biology and underlying methods required / No new potential risks associated with current research work
Commandeering microbes pave way for synthetic biology in military environments
A team of scientists from the US Army Research Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed and demonstrated a pioneering synthetic biology tool to deliver DNA programming into a broad range of bacteria.
BioBits: Teaching synthetic biology to K-12 students
As biologists have probed deeper into the genetic underpinnings of life, K-12 schools have struggled to provide a curriculum that reflects those advances.
Sensor strategy a boon for synthetic biology
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Drug-producing bacteria possible with synthetic biology breakthrough
Bacteria could be programmed to efficiently produce drugs, thanks to breakthrough research into synthetic biology using engineering principles, from the University of Warwick and the University of Surrey.
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