July 4, 2022

Synthetic biology could lead to disaster, says Oxford bioethicist

Synthetic biology offers the prospect of annihilating life as we know it, says Julian Savulescu

Julian Savulescu, of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, has issued a dramatic warning about the dangers of synthetic biology. He believe that it easily could be used to synthesise lethal new organisms which could kill vast numbers or to create radically new life forms which could wreak havoc on ecosystems and human health. Writing in Times Higher Education, he painted a bleak picture of reckless, unregulated progress: 

“Given the potential impact of a catastrophe, there is an absolute moral imperative to review our regulatory structures, international oversight, rules for publication, access to reagents and technology, and so on. Responsible scientists should lead this.

“In the meantime, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the US National Science Foundation, BP and the US Department of Energy have pumped upwards of $500 million (£315 million) into synthetic biology. In the UK, the figure is estimated at £65 million over five years. Technology marches on.

“The presidential commission felt that in 2010, the field was “too novel” to produce specific governance. Will any review conducted by government produce useful controls over what is now an industry with a market value of $1.6 billion (expected to be worth $10.8 billion in 2016)? The past two years have seen synthetic biology evolve from a novelty news item to a major research priority, and as such the window for effective governance may have passed.

“The biological revolution is at once exciting, even mesmerising, but terrifying. The genie is out of the bottle. Our challenge is to ethically master the machines we are creating. At present, they are relatively simple and benign. But synthetic biology offers the prospect of annihilating life as we know it.”

Michael Cook
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Julian Savulescu
synthetic biology