View Video Duration: 90 min
The rapidly developing field of synthetic genomics (and more generally, synthetic biology) offers great promise for both basic biological research and as a new and powerful tool for biotechnology. The hope is that this new technology will allow dramatic breakthroughs in the production of new vaccines, diagnostics, and pharmaceuticals; in renewable, carbon-neutral energy sources; and in bio-based manufacturing in general.
But, as with virtually any new technology that promises significant benefits, synthetic genomics brings with those benefits a series of societal concerns and issues. Perhaps the most prominent concern raised in the United States is that the technology may end up being used by bioterrorists. And similar to almost all work with recombinant DNA, improper use of synthetic genomics poses risks to the environment and to laboratory workers.
Other issues are harder to grapple with. Much of—perhaps most of—the current discussion among scientists, ethicists, and other concerned members of the public about synthetic genomics can more accurately be described as talking past each other, rather than with each other, about the societal issues raised by this new technology. Not only do people hold different views about what they think, society has diverging views about how to think about these issues. Concerns about the ethical and religious implications of, in their words, "creating life" have been raised by civil society groups and others. Further, questions have been raised about who will gain the benefit from this new technology.
Dr. Friedman's talk disentangled the set of concerns that is unique to synthetic genomics—where the use of synthetic genomics significantly adds to societal concerns about the use of biotechnology or new technology in general. He briefly reviewed the basics of this new technology and discuss its potential, that is, the reasons why this research is being pursued at the Venter Institute and many other labs around the world. He then turned to the above-mentioned societal issues, focusing on those aspects of synthetic genomics that make it different from other types of work with recombinant DNA. He concluded by identifying those areas where the miscommunication between scientists and the public is most troublesome.