By J. Adebukola Awosogba, M.A.

It has been 43 years since the media learned of the federally funded Tuskegee Syphilis study, and just 5 years since the US apologized for conduct of unethical STD research in Guatemalan prisons and mental institutions during the 1940s. In order to investigate and prevent such atrocities, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, established in 2009 by executive order, provides a forum for discourse among academics, policy makers, scientists, religious and secular ethicists, and the general public.

In 2010, the Obama Administration gave The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethics Issues (the Commission, henceforth) the opportunity to think ahead and analyze the ethics of synthetic biology and emerging technologies. At the time, the Commission concluded that much of the research being done in synthetic biology did not amount to the ‘creation of life’ per se. A mere 5 years ago, they predicted that technology with the ability to create life would remain “remote for the foreseeable future.”

The Commission decided to forgo discussions surrounding speculative uses of synthetic biology, instead focusing on technologies already in progress and their uses in clean energy, pollution control, agricultural products, vaccines, and medication. A series of public deliberations culminated in a report aimed to assure the public that all synthetic biology efforts will proceed with appropriate attention to social, environmental, and ethical risk.

It seems, however, that the age of consumer driven synthetic biology has arrived and with little-to-no direct regulation or recommendations for future regulation. In particular, a storm of concern is growing around the ethics of Cambrian Genomics, a DNA printing start-up which promises a future of consumer engineered organisms and genetic design. Ethicist, Marcy Darnovsky, of the Center of Genetics and Society of Berkeley California has expressed concern regarding the consequences of moral carelessness coupled with an absence of regulation.

While concern is understandable, she and others should defer with confidence to the expansive nature of the Commission recommendations on synthetic biology and emerging technologies. Each recommendation, however specific, can be deduced to five broader ethical principles, the scope of which is relevant to the social implications of the most unimaginable advances. They are: (1) public beneficence, (2) responsible stewardship, (3) intellectual freedom and responsibility, (4) democratic deliberation, and (5) justice and fairness. When considered, these principles are meant to ensure that new technologies can be developed in an ethically responsible manner.

For the complete report on synthetic biology and emerging technologies, click here.