Humming with Mystery

Synthetic Biology & Playing God

When President Barack Obama announced an executive order creating a Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, he said, “As our nation invests in science and innovation and pursues advances in biomedical research and health care, it’s imperative that we do so in a responsible manner.”

It was not clear at the time which new advances in biomedical research the commision might take up, but it was not long before developments in the field of synthetic biology, specifically the May 2010 announcement that the J. Craig Venter Institute had created the world’s first self-replicating bacterial cell controlled completely by a synthetic genome, settled the matter. Recognizing the significance of this achievement—what the Venter Institute described as the ability “to rewrite the software of life”—Obama asked the commission to report to him within six months.

Though synthetic biology has not gotten much attention in the popular press, it is arguably the next big thing in scientific research and innovation. More akin to engineering than biology, it comprises various new technologies that may be used to redesign existing biological systems or even to design entirely new living organisms. As Jonathan B. Tucker and Raymond A. Zilinskas wrote five years ago in the journal the New Atlantis, synthetic biology possesses seemingly limitless application. “Among the potential applications of this new field,” they pointed out, “is the creation of bioengineered...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.