IGEM Outreach:Lesson Plans

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Ethics of Synthetic Biology

  • Suitable for: high school and college students

Presentation Suggestions

  • Short talk (~10 minutes) about what synthetic biology is, what has been done, what we can do with it in the future, bio ethics issues of the past, and bio ethics issues of today.
  • Use slides to introduce a variety of ethics issues to students, prompting them to talk about the issues and to engage their classmates and you in discussions.

At the start of the presentation, give a summary sheet of ethics issues to each student to give them enough information to discuss the issues after your intro slides. The issues below are just a few examples. To this page, please add more ethics issues (issue summary + a quote/ prompt to put on a slide) so we can all have many situations to draw from and thus make our ethics presentations even more engaging for students. Put your team name under the title of your contribution so we all know who to give credit to. Also, to prevent people in black suits from banging down our doors in the dead of the night, don’t forget to list your references! Thanks. –-Alyssa, Cornell iGEM

J. Craig Venter Institute: Synthetic Life

(from “Craig Venter creates synthetic life form,” The Guardian, UK, 2010)

Scientists have created the world's first synthetic life form in a landmark experiment that paves the way for designer organisms that are built rather than evolved.

[…] The new organism is based on an existing bacterium that causes mastitis in goats, but at its core is an entirely synthetic genome that was constructed from chemicals in the laboratory.

The single-celled organism has four "watermarks" written into its DNA to identify it as synthetic and help trace its descendants back to their creator, should they go astray.

[…] ‘This is an important step both scientifically and philosophically,’ Dr Venter told the journal. ‘It has certainly changed my views of definitions of life and how life works.’

The team now plans to use the synthetic organism to work out the minimum number of genes needed for life to exist. From this, new microorganisms could be made by bolting on additional genes to produce useful chemicals, break down pollutants, or produce proteins for use in vaccines.

  • Contrasting viewpoints:
#“Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is not merely copying life artificially ... or modifying it radically by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally.”

--Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at Oxford University

  1. “[This is] a defining moment in the history of biology and biotechnology.”

-- Mark Bedau, philosopher at Reed College in Portland, Oregon