Summerschool: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology

IDEA League

The IDEA League consists:


Synthetic Biology is a promising new field of research whose state-of-the-art and prospects are already discussed under ethical perspectives. Synthetic biology contains huge promises for society, but also large potential perils. For example, it could provide us with large quantities of biofuels without using land that can also be used to produce food. It could also provide large quantities of cheap anti-malaria medicine. Conversely, synthetic biology could lead to the creation of more lethal and virulent pathogens, which might be used in a terrorist attack. Moreover, synthetic biology will make discussions necessary about fundamental concepts like nature and life.

The field has been defined as “the engineering of biological components and systems that do not exist in nature and the re-engineering of existing biological elements; it determined on the intentional design of artificial biological systems, rather than on the understanding of natural biology.” (Synbiology 2005). Synthetic biology emerged from biotechnological research and the life sciences. It is at the intersection of biology, chemistry and physics, overlapping and cross-fertilising with a range of other fields of research and technology development. An important characteristic of synthetic biology is the wedding of biology with engineering approaches. We are at the very early stages of synthetic biology. It remains difficult to synthesise anything but the smallest of organisms, most of which will be viruses. Much of the work relates to identifying the minimum set of elements within ‘artificial’ bacteria that could result in a living system capable of replication. That which is most likely to be possible is to identify elements of organisms that have specific functions and, having identified those desired in a synthetic virus (for example), put the elements together to provide for these functions. Bioterrorism is therefore a real issue in synthetic biology, and perhaps the most important other than pure research to identify the elements of driving living systems.

It is at this stage in the development of synthetic biology that ethical and legal analysis should be attempted, based on interdisciplinary research which includes expertise in ethics, law, science and technology foresight. It is also arguable that it is at this stage that the public needs to be made aware of the implications of this new approach to biology, and to be able to have an input into the manner in which it is regulated. Several individuals and organizations have already identified ethical issues of synthetic biology (Church 2005; De Vriend 2006; European Commission 2005; ETC Group 2007; Bhuktar 2005; Maurer et al. 2006). The most frequently cited ethical issues are biosecurity and biosafety. More information.

Program of the summer school

For a preliminary program, see here.

Organizing staff

The summer school is hosted by the Department of Philosophy (School of Technology, Policy and Management) of Delft University of Technology. The organizing staff consists of:

For information about the program or registration {encode=”” title=”contact Ilse Oosterlaken”}.
For practical information and arrangements {encode=”” title=”contact Saskia Verbakel”}.

Participation and registration

We aim at ten participant, two from each of the constituting members of the IDEA League (Imperial College London, TU Delft, ETH Zurich, RWTH Aachen and ParisTech). The participants are PhD students in synthetic biology or (bio)nanotechnology. The participating universities have guaranteed the participation of two PhD-students from their institute.

PhD students who want to participate can register by sending an {encode=”” title=”e-mail to Ilse Oosterlaken”}. Registration is free for two PhD students from each university. Registration includes participation in the workshop, coffee and tea during the sessions, lunches during the summer school and two dinners.

Participants, or their university, are responsible for travel and hotel costs. We have a number of hotel rooms available (about 100 euro/night). Please {encode=”” title=”contact Saskia Verbakel”} for more information and to make arrangements. Saskia can also assist you in making travel arrangements if required.

Reader / more information on synthetic biology

More background information on the ethics of synthetic biology can be found here. All participants will receive a reader (pdf) with essential texts one or two weeks before the start of the summer school.