What are the moral and ethical concerns of synthetic biology?

The 21st Century is often said as the Era of Biotechnology, Given the current pandemic situation, the above statement seems to imply. One of the prominent and emerging fields in Biotechnology is “Synthetic Biology”, which aims to apply engineering principles to the creation of biological systems. 

Many recent findings and advancement have shown synthetic biology holds significant benefits to humanity. Although this field and the scientist are praised, it raises ethical concerns.

Ethical Concerns:

  • It questions the extent of scientific freedom.

  •  “Playing God”.

  • Bioterrorism and Misuse of Knowledge.

  • The dichotomy between Living organisms and Machines.

  • Economic concerns.

  • Environmental concerns.


Synthetic Biology questions the “Extent of Scientific freedom”

I would like to call this as an epistemological argument because it deals with the responsibilities of scientists. We believe that the role of scientists is to develop/invent things for the betterment of humanity and the truth is the same. But, with limitless possibilities that synthetic biology offers, I feel that there should be a certain limit. Once this limit is drawn other ethical concerns will subside.


Playing God

The concerns of “Playing God” have been voiced since the beginning of Modern Biotechnology. This is linked to philosophical debates about the creation of life, prompting fears about scientists playing God. The concern about modification is that it might involve usurping the role of a higher being or failing to recognise human limitations.


Bioterrorism and Misuse of Knowledge

One of the major ethical concerns is intentionally misusing knowledge. This field might recreate smallpox or create new pathogens that may be deadly to mankind. 

In 2001 Scientists accidentally created a vaccine-resistant strain of Mousepox virus (Ectromelia virus) which killed all the infected mice. 

There is an understandable danger here, but publishing such studies could also have benefits for science and banning them raises complex censorship issues. Here we have something called the dual-use dilemma, which is a dilemma arising when scientific knowledge could be used in both good and harmful ways and the risk of harmful use is sufficiently high that it is no longer clear whether that knowledge should be pursued or disseminated.


The dichotomy between Living organisms and Machines

This topic deals with the moral status of living organisms as synthetic biology seems to fall in the grey area of living and non-living. This isn’t that big a concern unless something like “Synthetic human-computer with emotions” is created (hypothetically).


Economic concerns

Synthetic biology can create a surge in the economy causing a shift towards biotechnology-based economies. This will affect the rural economy and low-income tropical countries. Natural products are usually grown and harvested in low-income countries, This could be displaced by advancements in synthetic biology (example: GMOs).


Environmental concerns

When a new species is created or When a species is intensely modified, the activity of species and their coexistence with other organisms is unpredictable.



Given my views about the ethical issues concerning synthetic biology. I think synthetic biology isn’t the first to raise questions about the ethics and scientists are not responsible for how their work is used. Comparing the Possibilities and Limitations(Ethically) new framework for ethics can be developed but discontinuing any further research in synthetic biology would be a gross and ludicrous decision. REFERENCE

  1. Douglas, T., & Savulescu, J. (2010). Synthetic biology and the ethics of knowledge. Journal of medical ethics, 36(11), 687–693. https://doi.org/10.1136/jme.2010.038232
  2. https://researchoutreach.org/articles/machine-metaphors/
  3. https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcsbi/sites/default/files/PCSBI-Synthetic-Biology-Report-12.16.10_0.pdf
  4. https://scholarship.shu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1761&context=student_scholarship


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