Projects per year
Synthetic biology promises to be highly innovative in its contribution to scientific understanding. But it offers other sorts of innovation too: in the variety of applications that could result and in the wide range of practitioners who could become involved. But directly corresponding to each of these is a kind of regulatory concern. If the entry barriers are low for a form of scientific practice with dramatic implications then the need for regulatory control over access is great since no one wants unlicensed operators releasing experimental organisms. If there are likely to be extensive opportunities for application within the human body and in the open environment (for energy production or novel forms of bioremediation) then the release and safety-testing implications are potentially enormous. Proponents of synthetic biology have been quick to realise that these challenges call for reviews of the societal and ethical aspects of synthetic biology. This paper shows that the template commonly adopted for such reviews draws on bioethics. It goes on to show that this template is far from ideal, both because of limitations in the way that bioethics has been institutionalized and because of key differences between the regulatory demands on synthetic biology and on bioethics. The paper concludes that broader models of societal and ethical review of synthetic biology are urgently required.