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Synthetic biology is a descendant of recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology, which transformed biology in the 1970s by allowing scientists to cut and paste DNA from one organism to another. These same biologists were also the vanguard in another way – they were the first to publicly raise concerns about their own research. So concerned, in fact, that they enacted a moratorium while they figured out exactly what the risks were and how to address them. The bulk of these deliberations were carried out in 1975 at Asilomar State Beach in northern California – at a conference involving about 140 scientists, lawyers and members of the media.

Yet this now-legendary meeting was incomplete.

The scientists were concerned primarily with the potential human health risks of rDNA research. Left out entirely, and intentionally, at the Asilomar conference were issues related to the moral significance of genetic manipulation, as well as broader questions of social responsibility in science. As stated at the time by the group Science for the People (who were not invited): “Since the risks and dangers of these technologies are borne by the society at large, and not just scientists, the general public must be directly involved in the decision-making process.”

… continue reading “Synthetic biology presents an ethical tightrope”

Image via Flickr AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Fernan Federici

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