We have collected an assembly of mind-provoking talks and articles for your inspiration and stimulation!  If new thoughts sprung to your mind, we are more than thrilled to receive your takes on any of the topics!

How synthetic biology could wipe out humanity --

and how we can stop it | Rob Reid

The world-changing promise of synthetic biology and gene editing has a dark side. In this far-seeing talk, author and entrepreneur Rob Reid reviews the risks of a world where more and more people have access to the tools and tech needed to create a doomsday bug that could wipe out humanity -- and suggests that it's time to take this danger seriously.

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Designing Life: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology,

with Professor Drew Endy of Stanford University

As part of a major new initiative by President Michael D. Higgins, Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin will explore the ethics and future directions of synthetic biology - an emerging scientific field that could ultimately permit the design of living organisms.

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SYNBIOSAFE: Synthetic biology and its social and ethical implications

Synthetic biology  aims at creating novel organisms for practical purposes. With many anticipated benefits and a high impact on society, the societal and ethical aspects of this discipline, as well as its possible risks, are becoming increasingly prominent. 

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Engineered Viruses Are the New Biological Weapons, Here's What You Need to Know

Genetically engineered viruses are becoming more common as the costs of DNA sequencing and genetic engineering are dropping, what does that mean for us?

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Existential Risk: A Conversation with Toby Ord

In this episode of the podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Toby Ord about preserving the long term future of humanity. They discuss moral biases with respect to distance in space and time, the psychology of effective altruism, feeling good vs. doing good, possible blindspots in consequentialism, natural vs. human-caused risk, asteroid impacts, nuclear war, pandemics, the potentially cosmic significance of human survival, the difference between bad things and the absence of good things, population ethics, Derek Parfit, the asymmetry between happiness and suffering, climate change, and other topics.

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Opinion on Synthetic Biology II: Risk assessment methodologies and safety aspects

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The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies

In its first report to President Obama, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has identified the risks and benefits of pioneering research that could lead to new vaccines, drugs and biofuels and developed framework to evaluate emerging technologies. Citing uncertainty about risks, the Commission urges enhanced coordination and transparency, ongoing risk analysis, public engagement, and stepped up ethics education for researchers.

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Synthetic Biology and Ethics: Past, Present, and Future

This article explores the ethical issues that have been identified in emerging technologies, from early genetic engineering to synthetic biology. The scientific advances in the field form a continuum, and some ethical considerations can be raised time and again when new developments occur. An underlying concern is the cumulative effect of scientific advances and ensuing technological innovation that can change our understanding of life and humanity.

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Human Agency and Global Catastrophic Biorisks

Given that events such as the Black Death and the introduction of smallpox to the Americas have comprised some of the greatest catastrophes in human history, it is natural to examine the possibility of global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs). As Schoch-Spana et al note,1 a defining characteristic of GCBRs is their intergenerational consequences. In the particularly extreme case of human extinction or permanent collapse of human civilization, such GCBRs would jeopardize the very existence of many thousands of future generations.

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Synthetic biology: Recent progress, biosafety and biosecurity concerns, and possible solutions

Synthetic biology is a new interdisciplinary research area that uses engineering principles as guidelines for biological investigation. With research goals to modify existing biological systems or to create new ones, the recent applications of synthetic biology have expanded approaches and tools for conventional biological research. In this article, we first briefly review the development and progress of synthetic biology over the past decade.

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Synthetic biology and the ethics of knowledge

Synthetic biologists aim to generate biological organisms according to rational design principles. Their work may have many beneficial applications, but it also raises potentially serious ethical concerns. In this article, we consider what attention the discipline demands from bioethicists. We argue that the most important issue for ethicists to examine is the risk that knowledge from synthetic biology will be misused, for example, in biological terrorism or warfare. To adequately address this concern, bioethics will need to broaden its scope, contemplating not just the means by which scientific knowledge is produced, but also what kinds of knowledge should be sought and disseminated.

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Sara Aguiton, Claire Maye

Conclusion of these reports : 

  • daily and local efforts : An ethical reflection on practices, discourses and social interactions.

  • A responsible position regarding what scientific paradigms, through concepts, perceptions and values, are emerging with this field.

  • The need to raise awareness of synthetic biology in the population so people can decide in the most enlightened way possible if they want of this new technology and its applications.

  • The need of a discussion between society’s different decision makers to set goals and a definition of what they would consider benefits and acceptable risks.

  • Zero risk is impossible to achieve as no containment system can be 100% safe (bacteria can always escape).

  • There is a lack of quantitative data evaluating the probability of failure of any synthetic biology engineered system, in particular containment systems.

  • There is a lack of quantitative data evaluating the risk of HGT assuming containment systems failed.

  • The compiling of the wiki screen shows that no containment systems created in iGEM is robust: they lack the above quantification and are mostly one mutation away from failure. We call for major effort of the iGEM community to quantify available containment systems and search for new solutions.

  • The need for an INDEPENDENT cohort of scientists to test experimentally any application of synthetic biology that requires release into the environment.

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Ethical and regulatory issues raised by synthetic biology

The project addresses the ethical, legal and social implications of the emerging field of synthetic biology, with a special focus on biosafety and biosecurity and on notions of life. The project starts with discerning relevant ethical issues in close collaboration with the synthetic biology community. Next, the public debates around these issues are analysed. The current ethical and regulative frameworks existing in synthetic biology and closely related fields like nanobiotechnology and genetic engineering will then be reconstructed and assessed for their ability to deal adequately with existing and newly emerging ethical issues in synthetic biology. 

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Existential Risk and Cost-Effective Biosecurity

In the decades to come, advanced bioweapons could threaten human existence. Although the probability of human extinction from bioweapons may be low, the expected value of reducing the risk could still be large, since such risks jeopardize the existence of all future generations. We provide an overview of biotechnological extinction risk, make some rough initial estimates for how severe the risks might be, and compare the cost-effectiveness of reducing these extinction-level risks with existing biosecurity work. We find that reducing human extinction risk can be more cost-effective than reducing smaller-scale risks, even when using conservative estimates. This suggests that the risks are not low enough to ignore and that more ought to be done to prevent the worst-case scenarios.

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The Vulnerable World Hypothesis

Scientific and technological progress might change people’s capabilities or incentives in ways that would destabilize civilization. For example, advances in DIY biohacking tools might make it easy for anybody with basic training in biology to kill millions; novel military technologies could trigger arms races in which whoever strikes first has a decisive advantage; or some economically advantageous process may be invented that produces disastrous negative global externalities that are hard to regulate. This paper introduces the concept of a vulnerable world: roughly, one in which there is some level of technological development at which civilization almost certainly gets devastated by default, i.e. unless it has exited the ‘semi-anarchic default condition’. Several counterfactual historical and speculative future vulnerabilities are analyzed and arranged into a typology. A general ability to stabilize a vulnerable world would require greatly amplified capacities for preventive policing and global governance. The vulnerable world hypothesis thus offers a new perspective from which to evaluate the risk-benefit balance of developments towards ubiquitous surveillance or a unipolar world order.

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Machine metaphors: Ethical and philosophical challenges in synthetic biology

Dr Joachim Boldt

The emerging field of synthetic biology faces a growing need for conceptual clarification and ethical deliberation. Dr Joachim Boldt from the University of Freiburg has analysed the use of machine metaphors in describing biological systems, and how language affects the approaches we have towards synthetic biology research. In addition to oversimplifying biological systems, machine metaphors can create new biosafety risks and change how humanity regards life itself.

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Synthetic Biology Ethics at iGEM: iGEMer Perspectives

The Human Practice (HP) work of the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition can serve as a great example of integrating ethical considerations into synthetic biology research. By highlighting three independent perspectives from those involved in various aspects of iGEM, here we aim to provide an informative picture of how ethical issues are approached within the iGEM competition.

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The Ethics of Synthetic Biology: Next Steps and Prior Questions

In this report, we will take stock of the current consensus, comment on some of the major points of disagreement, and identify the next steps for the debate. In part I, we offer a brief overview of the research and applications commonly grouped together under the heading of synthetic biology, partly in order to set the stage for the rest of the discussion and partly because we want to highlight some conceptual problems that attend the very la­bel given this field. In parts II, III, and IV, we take up, respectively, three broad classes of concerns that arise in the context of synthetic biology: con­cerns about the intrinsic or inherent value of do­ing synthetic biology, concerns about the concrete harms and benefits of doing synthetic biology, and concerns about justice. Addressing these concerns requires a method for bringing the public's values to bear on policy‐making concerning emerging biotechnologies; in part V, we discuss the chal­lenges in developing such a method.

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How safe is safe enough: towards best pratices of synthetic biology

When discussing putting genetically modified bacteria in the environment, it is crucial to differentiate between synthetic biology in the lab and synthetic biology in the field. The debate on whether any GM bacteria should be used in the field should take place, and then be closed so we can move forward to discussing the applications and safety on a case-by case basis. If we do not proceed in that order the debate debate will get messy, like it has been concerning GMO crops in Europe. Europeans never truly had a say on the legitimacy of recombinant DNA technology, so when its applications were discussed many felt important questions had never been addressed. We are afraid the same thing could happen with Synthetic Biology if citizens are not properly informed and given the opportunity to debate on Synthetic Biology as a field. Of course, we are not starting from 0 because fears about genetic engineering have already been voiced during the GMO crops episode, and as Synthetic Biology is an extension of genetic engineering, we can only imagine that the fears raised by the first are mainly extensions of the ones raised by the latter. For all of the above reasons, we decided to separate this essay into two distinct parts. The first one will address the concerns raised by synthetic biology per se, that is, as a technique. Then, in our second part, we will analyze the specific concerns that arise from synthetic biology’s potential applications in nature.

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Options to Reform the European Union Legislation on GMOs: Risk Governance

Dennis Eriksson, René Custers, Karin Edvardsson Björnberg Sven Ove Hansson, Kai Purnhagen, Matin Qaim, Jörg Romeis, Joachim Schiemann, Stephan Schleissing, Jale Tosun, and Richard G.F. Visser 

Here, we discuss options to reform the EU genetically modified organism (GMO) regulatory framework, to make risk assessment and decision-making more consistent with scientific principles, and to lay the groundwork for international coherence. We discussed the scope and definitions in a previous article and, thus, here we focus on the procedures for risk assessment and risk management.

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Engineering and ethical perspectives in synthetic biology

The applications of synthetic biology will involve the release of artificial life forms into the environment. These organisms will present unique safety challenges that need to be addressed by researchers and regulators to win public engagement and support.

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