Cluster of Excellence –
University of Freiburg

An ethics framework for Synthetic Biology

Dr. Joachim Boldt (Institut für Ethik und Geschichte der Medizin and BIOSS, University of Freiburg)

The future success of synthetic biology does not only depend on scientific and technological progress but on public and political acceptance as well. With regard to the latter, ethical arguments and evaluations are important to reach societal agreement. The project package aims to analyze and evaluate ethical issues at three levels: 1. Conceptual issues: Being a science and technology directed at the realm of life and strongly influenced by engineering ideals, synthetic biology challenges everyday concepts of life and their normative implications. Public unease and communicative barriers can be partly traced back to misunderstandings based on these different ways of conceptualizing the objects of synthetic biology research. Thus, different relevant concepts of life are analyzed and their normative implications are delineated in order to enable a dialogue between scientists and the public that is not hampered by unwittingly applying different understandings of life. 2. Identifying relevant ethical criteria: Synthetic biology is a technology with potential applications both with regard to health and food and agriculture. Hence, synthetic biology cannot be sufficiently dealt with by exclusively applying commonplace medical ethics frameworks or by using a (less operationalized) environmental ethics framework. Hence, a unified set of ethical criteria for evaluating synthetic biology applications will be established.3. Risk assessment: Synthetic biology organisms may come to differ from their natural counterparts to such a degree that risk assessment procedures as they are commonly used in the case of GMOs may possibly prove to be insufficient. Therefore, paradigms of current risk assessment procedures will be analyzed with regard to their ability to deal with possible future synthetic biology parts and organisms.