Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology

  • Patrick Heavey

Student thesis: Phd


Synthetic biology has been defined as: "the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes" ( The convergence of scientific fields such as molecular biology, computer science and others have rendered it a natural progression, based on existing knowledge.The fact that humanity has reached a stage of development where it seems feasible to "create" life, or design it to a high degree of specificity, is a significant milestone in its history. It generates important ethical questions: Is synthetic biology something good, a natural use of humanity's talents, or is it a step towards megalomania, playing God, a usurpation of his role? Is it really a natural progression, nature advancing to a state where its products can, in turn, improve nature itself; or does it challenge the dignity of nature by virtue of its "unnaturalness"? Is it an expression of the creative talent of humanity, thus enhancing human dignity, and perhaps that of all life, or does it challenge the dignity of life itself? Regarding its potential consequences, it may, if it succeeds, lead humanity to a new level of development, a paradigm shift comparable with the scientific or industrial revolutions, through a vast increase in scientific knowledge, and subsequent technological developments in all relevant areas, including medicine, food production and fuel development. However, there is potential for serious accidents if synthetic organisms interact with naturally occurring ones, possibly affecting the future course of evolution. Synthetic biology also offers the possibility of creating ever more powerful weapons, more easily than ever before; the technology is reaching a stage where any interested members of the public may be able to create weapons of mass destruction. Synbio is a dual use technology, offering potential for both good and evil. Its potential for either appears to be greater than any other technology that has existed.In this thesis I evaluate the ethics of synthetic biology from the following ethical perspectives - deontology, consequentialism and theology. I am approaching it from several viewpoints so as to give as wide an analysis of the issues as possible. I also evaluate the effectiveness of these standard ethical tools for evaluating synbio ethics. In addition, I examine whether ethics should be more deeply integrated into the day-to-day scientific research in synbio. As a secondary study, I discuss regulation, the main legal issue that synthetic biology generates.
Date of Award1 Aug 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJohn Harris (Supervisor), Charles Erin (Supervisor) & Catherine Stanton (Supervisor)


  • Bioterror
  • Catholic
  • Regulation
  • Biosafety
  • Methodology
  • Ethics
  • God
  • Theology
  • Synthetic biology

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