OpenWetWare:Ethics of Synthetic Biology

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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 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)

  • Cornell iGEM 2011

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

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

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


  • Sample, Ian. “Craig Venter creates synthetic life form.” May 20, 2010

Henrietta Lacks: Genetic Rights

From The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, 2010 (Soon to be made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, the creator and executive producer of HBO’s “True Blood”)

  • Cornell iGEM 2011

Book excerpt:

“There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her—a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is ‘Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.’

“[… ] Her real name is Henrietta Lacks.

“[…] Henrietta died in 1951 from a vicious case of cervical cancer, [my high school biology teacher] told us. But before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.

“Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers. Their chromosomes and proteins have been studied with such detail and precision that scientists know their every quirk. Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse.

“’HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years,’ [my biology teacher] said.”


  • Skloot, Rebecca. About The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot. 2011.
  • Skloot, Rebecca. Excerpt: Prologue. Rebecca Skloot. 2011.

Myriad Genetics, Inc: Patent Protection

  • Cornell iGEM 2011

BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 are two genes linked to susceptibility for breast and ovarian cancer (hence their acronyms). The risk of falling ill increases by 40% to 85% if these genes show certain mutations. Identifying the mutations is therefore important for diagnosis and for monitoring higher-risk women. Myriad Genetics Inc., in collaboration with the University of Utah, was the first organization to sequence the BRCA-1 gene, and it applied for patent protection in 1994. Together with the University of Utah Research Foundation and the United States of America, Myriad holds U.S. patents 5747282 and 5710001 on the isolated DNA coding for a BRCA-1 polypeptide and on a screening method.

Armed with these patents, Myriad held a monopoly on the methods of screening breast cancer. They were very aggressive in stopping all competition. At this time, University of Pennsylvania professors were researching how to improve the breast cancer screening but were forced to stop by Myriad. This quickly gave Myriad the image that it was willing to prevent research in the field in order to increase its profits.

They offered the screening at over $3,000, but companies in Canada were doing these screening tests for only over $1,000. The Canadian companies were then forced to stop their testing. Also, Myriad tried to advertise their testing to people who were at low risk of the disease in an attempt to make more money. They were able to make millions of dollars on their patent but have been struggling to break even recently. In the past 10 years, Myriad's patents have been significantly reduced by court. Many parts of their original patents have been repealed, and they only hold a small portion of their original patents.


  • Gold, E. Richard and Carbone, Julia. Myriad Genetics: In The Eye of the Policy Storm. International Expert Group on Biotechnology, Innovation and Intellectual Property. September 2008.
  • Schwartz, John and Pollack, Andrew. “Judge Invalidates Human Gene Patent.” The New York Times. March 29, 2010.

Dolly the Sheep: Cloning

  • Cornell iGEM 2011

With the tools and knowledge that it has today, modern biotechnology is poised and ready to do big things through cloning. We are talking big things that can change the way society works—launching health care and medicine to an entirely new tier of quality and perhaps, as some people say, even playing the role of Creator. This segment will clarify the uses of cloning, its risks, and where the science stands today. As each day that passes is a step closer toward achieving drastic advancements, it is important to establish ethical boundaries for cloning and its potential early on before things can get out of hand.


  • Nash, J. Madeline. “Others Who Shaped 1997: Dr. Ian Wilmut… And Dolly.” Time Magazine. December 29, 1997.
  • (And various articles from the famous March 1997 Time Magazine issue that featured Dolly the sheep.)

"Apei": Transgenic Engineering

(from “Glowing Monkeys Spark Genetic Engineering Debate,” The Daily Mail, UK, 2009)

  • Cornell iGEM 2011

“Despite its utterly normal outward appearance, the Rhesus monkey known as ANDi bears an extra gene taken from, of all creatures, a jellyfish. And while so-called transgenic animals have been created before, this is the first time such a species-mixing experiment has been performed on a primate, the class of animals that includes human beings--a point driven eerily home by the monkey's uncannily humanlike hands, expressive features and big round eyes.”

“On one hand, the ability to manipulate the genes of a creature so similar to humans could give researchers an incredibly powerful tool for studying and perhaps someday curing human illnesses--introducing Alzheimer's genes, for example, to test new drugs and vaccines against the disease.”

“But the experiment also raises disturbing questions not only about animal rights but also about how far genetic manipulation can be permitted to go. If ANDi's genome has indeed been altered, he'll pass the change on to his offspring, creating an entire line of transgenic descendants. And while this so-called germline gene engineering is routinely done in lower creatures, moving it up to primates brings the technique much closer to being done in humans.”


  • Macrae, Fiona. “Glowing Monkeys Spark Genetic Engineering Debate.” Mail Online. May 28, 2009