Team:Utah State/ETHICS


USU iGem Untitled Document

ETHICS Introduction
Synthetic Biology
Team Education
Public Education
Synthetic Biology: Education in an Emerging Field

The iGEM competition is devoted to the advancement of synthetic biology, specifically in standardized parts-based research. It welcomes participants from institutions of higher education from around the world. Just as important as contributing to the understanding of molecular biology based engineering is contributing to a framework which allows applications of this knowledge to be implemented in a manner that serves society. As we address human practices on our wiki we give a brief overview of synthetic biology, list areas in human practice commonly recognized as needing address, pose questions for discussion associated with those areas, and outline two ways the iGEM community can take fundamental actions. These actions involve a broader education of iGEM participants, and the dissemination of knowledge in our educational and public communities.

Synthetic Biology and Human Practices

Synthetic biology has been hailed by some as the next technological revolution. It has been said that standard biological parts “will be for the 21st century what screws and bolts were to the 19th, or transistors and resistors to the 20th (Endy quoted in Parens, Johnston, and Moses, 2009).” Members in the field have visions of using synthetic biology to develop new applications in the areas of environment, health, and industry, as well as learning to understand the fundamental components of life itself. Significant progress has already been made evidenced by the ever increasing size of the registry of parts with applications in the areas listed above. With time other applications will likely arise.

As with any new technology, there exist potential benefits and potential areas of concern. There must be a balance between the desire to bring innovative and beneficial products to market and prevent potential harm to public health and the environment (Rodemeyer, 2009). Following are some of the issues that are commonly indicated as areas that must be addressed.

  • Biosafety: How can research personnel, the environment, and society be protected from intended or accidental exposure to developed products?
  • Biosecurity: What measures should be taken to ensure that products of synthetic biology are not used in a malevolent manner?
  • Property Rights: What is the best way to share information to ensure that the field progresses rapidly, that opportunities to contribute are distributed fairly, and that contributors to the field are fairly compensated? Is it ethical to have a patent on life?
  • Governance: What is the best way to implement policy that governs the field of synthetic biology? Is there a need for outside oversight or is self-governance sufficient? What challenges would arise if governing policy varied from country to country?
  • Mankind and Nature: What roles should humans play in manipulating nature? Who should decide to what extent manipulation of life is acceptable?
  • Public Perception and Involvement: Public involvement often is a deciding factor in funding and regulation. How should synthetic biology disseminate knowledge to the public and hear and address public concerns?

Efforts have been made to foster discussion about these areas and various measures to address them have been suggested (Maurer et al., 2006; Garfinkel et al., 2007). As synthetic biology is still in its youth, actions taken now and continued efforts to address these concerns in the future will enable the field to progress with minimal hindrance. “Procrastination bears a risk. A productive dialogue may become more difficult as synthetic biology evolves and stakeholders become divided in their opinions about benefits and risks (Rejeski, 2009a).” As the iGEM jamboree is the largest gathering related to synthetic biology in the world, we propose that initiative taken here will have a significant impact on the world. The “current and future leaders of the field” are participating in these gatherings (

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iGEM and Education

Broader Education of iGEM Participants

Establishing governing policy for synthetic biology is complex and difficult to address (Rodemeyer, 2009). Problems can arise from limited jurisdiction of a governing body (Marchant & Pope, 2009) or the expense and cumbersome nature of monitoring activity (Rodemeyer, 2009) among other difficulties. Whatever policy is decided upon, the ultimate difficulty comes in enforcing the policy.

In preparation for the Synthetic Biology 2.0 conference in 2006, Laurie Zoloth addressing “ethics training” stated:

What is needed is a lab culture which is strong enough and decent enough to teach and model impeccably honest moral science citizenship in the as yet small academic field of synthetic biology… Ethics education cannot be done with websites or software—there is a need for individual moral agency, and for this task, serious questions about the complexities of good and evil, difficult moral choices, the nature of the love of country, the nature of obligation to the other and the limits of the search for knowledge, all must be read about and studied with the same seriousness that young scientists give to understanding siRNA or nanobiobarcodes.

As the current and future leaders of the field of synthetic biology participate in these conferences, time before the conference and during the conference should be devoted to establishing appropriate human practices and ensuring that these practices are taught and implemented. The nature of iGEM and its multidisciplinary approach to a successful team is conducive to researching and establishing appropriate human practices. In order to qualify for a gold medal, teams are encouraged to address appropriate human practices as part of their project. Due to the difficult nature of the questions concerning human practices, we propose more could be done by iGEM participants. Possible additional measures include:

  • A new track focused solely on researching proper human practices, performing risk assessment, or researching public perception.
  • A portion of the conference set aside to relaying current best practices, or bringing before the community options for current best practices for discussion and acceptance.

As ensuring that proper policy is implemented and followed is important for the development of this or any field, these increased measures could help to ensure that policy becomes international and observed. Again, iGEM participants largely represent the future of the field. As policy is accepted within the iGEM community, enforcing the policy is simplified because it would be regularly taught and more widely accepted.

Public Education

Hart Researchers learned in a U.S. survey in 2009 that about 80% of the population had heard little or nothing about synthetic biology. Given the young age of the field, and based on a report about media coverage in the U.S. and Europe (Pauwels & Ifrim, 2008) we assume that there has been similar public exposure around the world. Some fields of study with great potential have been hindered as a result of not having adequate democratic involvement with the public for example genetically modified foods (Parens et al., 2009) or stem cell research (Marchant & Pope, 2009). The Hart researchers also found that there is a broad consensus that “more should be done to inform the American public.” 90% of adults surveyed agreed with that statement and 73 % “strongly agreed.”

In an address to the National Academy of Sciences, David Rejeski (2009b) suggested that there is a lack of good science reporters. Media, for various reasons, is prone to embellish and to present information that catches attention, but is not necessarily accurate. This leads to inaccurate initial assessments of synthetic biology. Once an initial assessment has been made, the feelings rarely change, but rather become stronger (Kahan et al., 2009). Addressing public perception, Tucker and Zilinskas (2006) wrote:

Although it is often difficult to persuade scientists to leave the laboratory for even a few hours to participate in a public discussion of their work and its implications for society, such efforts should be encouraged because they generate good will and may help to prevent a future political backlash that could cripple the emerging field of synthetic biology.

With more than 100 teams participating in iGEM coming from around the world, we represent a tremendous asset in disseminating accurate knowledge to the public. We propose two measures that could be taken by iGEM teams to increase public education.

  • In order to qualify for a gold medal a team should make an effort to have accurately released in a school newspaper or website, an article about synthetic biology and the school’s involvement with iGEM.
  • Encourage iGEM teams to host or give a presentation addressing synthetic biology open to the school and public. The presentation should also be open to accepting questions and addressing concerns.

Efforts to honestly present information to the public will lead to public trust and a market that welcomes innovations from the field. Interaction with the public in this fashion will also help to establish guidelines as to what research is considered acceptable and will aid in establishing regulatory frameworks.


The teams participating in iGEM can play an invaluable role in establishing policy regarding human practices and in acting as a liaison between the community of synthetic biology and the public. The multidisciplinary aspect of iGEM is conducive to progress in these two areas. With a concerted effort we can help ensure that synthetic biology continues to progress and reach its potential.

Our team has taken specific measures to follow our suggested proposals. In the education of our team, we discussed the potential benefits of a standard secretion system but also discussed the potential of our designed secretion pathways to be used in a malevolent manner. As a team we acknowledge the importance of high moral accountability and commitment to safety and security. Additionally, in an effort to foster the sharing of information in our community, upon completion of the jamboree we will submit an article to be released in our school newspaper and in our College of Engineering website. This winter we are also hosting a lecture by Drew Endy addressing synthetic biology which will be open to the public. We hope to act as ambassadors to foster support and excitement in our own community.

Finally, our biosafety committee on campus has approved our project and considered possible safety risks to our team members and the environment. It has been determined, that in our stage of research, basic laboratory precautions are sufficient to address our team safety including; wearing gloves, wearing eyeware, using a safety hood, and properly disposing of biowastes. The biobrick components we have made this year are pose no known harm to human or animal safety. Potentially, a secretion pathway could be used to secrete toxic proteins. The secretion products that we have been intererested in are not known to be harmful.

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  • Garfinkel M, Endy D, Epstein GL, Friedman RM (2007) Synthetic genomics – options for governance.
  • Hart Research (2009) Nanotechnology, synthetic biology, & public opinion: What does the public think?.
  • Kahan DM, Braman D, Mandel GN (2009, Feb. 20) Risk and culture: Is synthetic biology different? Harvard Law School Program on Risk Regulation Research Paper No. 09-2; Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 190.
  • Marchant GE, Pope LL (2009) The problems with forbidding science. Sci Eng Ethics 15:375-394
  • Maurer SM, et al.(2006) From understanding to action: Community-based options for improving safety and security in synthetic biology.
  • Parens E, et al.(2009) Ethical issues in synthetic biology: An overview of the debates.
  • Pauwels E, Ifrim I (2008) Trends in American and European Press Coverage of Synthetic Biology.
  • Rejeski D (2009a) Foreword-New life old bottles: Regulating first-generation products of synthetic biology.
  • Rejeski D (2009b) Public perceptions on the technological frontier. Given at National Academy of Sciences July 10, 2009. Audio Retrieved from,1,
  • Rodemeyer M (2009) New life old bottles: Regulating first-generation products of synthetic biology.
  • Tucker JB, Zilinskas RA (2006) The promise and perils of synthetic biology. The New Atlantis 12:25-45.
  • Zoloth L (2006) Ethical issues in synthetic biology: Security and regulation of experiments of concern.