Synthetic Biology (SynBio) is a relatively new field of scientific endeavour, emerging over the past 5-6 years. Rather than seeking to understand living organisms, SynBio researchers aim to design and build entirely new living systems at the molecular, cellular, tissue and organism level. SynBio utilises tools and mechanisms from many scientific disciplines, notably engineering, genetics, biotechnology and biochemistry; but also nanotechnology, physics and computational modelling. A key attribute is the use of principles of engineering with components from the life sciences to build or exploit living organisms rather than machines. Applications of SynBio research include environmental and health benefits, for example bio-fuels, biosensors and new therapeutics.
The discipline is rapidly gaining momentum and the researchers involved are keen to address the social and ethical aspects of their work. To date, however, much of the ELSI considerations of SynBio have targeted the safety and regulatory aspects of the field as a whole.
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However, no studies have yet focussed specifically on the ethical implications of SynBio for human health and well-being. The SYBHEL project will provide the first detailed analysis of a key global application of SynBio.
SYBHEL will examine several aspects of SynBio as it applies to human health and well-being, including: philosophical and social understandings of life (including new human-like entities); appropriate methodology for bioethical analysis in SynBio for health; ethical issues arising in utilising SynBio for health; regulatory and commercial aspects and public policy over the application of SynBio to health care.
The RTD work-packages will be underscored by several cross-cutting themes to ensure maximum flexibility and relevance of outcomes.
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SYBHEL will therefore be informed by existing work on: the definition and scientific state-of-the-art of SynBio (including methodologies and distinctions from existing approaches in engineering and the life sciences such as genetic engineering and systems biology); safety aspects and issues of distributive justice. SYBHEL will adopt an approach that recognises the non-reductionist, non-essentialist, dynamic and integrative nature of SynBio and will develop a comparable ethics response.
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(Image Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg Microbe Controllers
How might we cultivate an invisible landscape at home?)