Ethically Sound: New Directions

It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but synthetic biology is becoming more and more commonplace. And as it becomes more commonplace, so do concerns about how we use it responsibly. How should we safeguard against these possible risks? In this episode of Ethically Sound, host Hillary Wicai Viers talks with the vice-chair of the Bioethics Commission Dr. James Wagner and Eleonore Pawuels, and discusses the  Bioethics Commission's report New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies.




It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but synthetic biology is becoming more and more commonplace. And as it becomes more commonplace, so do concerns about how we use it responsibly. Even simple-seeming bio hacks, such as making flowers glow or creating a breed of sterile mosquitoes, could have consequences for our ecosystem if they were released into nature. How should we safeguard against these possible risks?

Welcome to Ethically Sound: A podcast of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. I’m Hillary Wicai Viers. Today, we’re talking with Dr. James W. Wagner, former President of Emory University and Vice Chair of the Bioethics Commission. But let’s start with a few words from Eleonore Pauwels of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


It was May 2010 in Washington, D.C. Along with many journalists crowding the room, I listened, transfixed, as biologist Craig Venter announced that his team had become the first to build a self-replicating bacterial cell in the lab. His words transformed a complex biological procedure into a sci-fi storyline: “This is the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” I felt uneasy – a knot in my stomach – thinking this would be the first introduction of synthetic biology to the public. As I like to explain it to my family, this new field of genetics is invaded by engineers and computer scientists, who want to build and control complex biological organisms.

I knew public deliberations had to include more than the potential biomedical benefits of synthetic biology. They had to address important ethical questions: How open will this new bio-industry be and who will benefit from its resulting innovations? What are the unknowns and long-term implications of modifying our genomes and the genomes of different species surrounding us? Who is in charge of anticipating potential risks and adapting regulation… and do they have sufficient foresight and understanding to do so?

Then, I remembered… Public opposition reflects not only technical misunderstanding but different conceptions on how to live well with emerging technologies. These technologies encapsulate transformative power. And knowledge is power. Knowledge is also responsibility. Today, we still face an unresolved question: How do we develop a culture of inclusive public deliberation and decision-making that could guide the integration of synthetic biology–and all new technologies–into society?


That was Eleonore Pauwels, Senior Program Associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Like Eleonore, people around the globe were awed by the announcement that researchers at the Venter Institute had inserted a genome made by scientists into a bacterial cell, creating an organism not found in nature.

Proponents and critics were quick to point out potential risks and benefits of this discovery and whether it amounted to "creating life." President Barack Obama asked the Bioethics Commission to review the developing field of synthetic biology and identify appropriate ethical boundaries to maximize public benefits and minimize risks.

Synthetic biology, which involves the design of biological parts made by humans instead of nature, could lead to more effective vaccines and life-saving medicines, as well as biofuels that could someday replace the need for fossil fuels. But the technology also poses potential risks to the environment and public safety, should an organism created by humans be inadvertently released into nature. Acknowledging the enormous promise as well as potential threats posed by the emerging field of synthetic biology, the Bioethics Commission issued 18 recommendations in its report New Directions.

The Bioethics Commission called for coordinated federal oversight of scientists working in both large institutions and smaller settings, including the do-it-yourself, or DIY, community. The Bioethics Commission recognized that DIY scientists working in home laboratories face technical challenges and high costs that pose a significant barrier to their ability to develop completely novel organisms. Yet, it also recognized that the DIY community is contributing to the field and as such the Bioethics Commission recognized the importance of maintaining an open dialogue with these scientists. Given the newness of the science, the Bioethics Commission also urged stepped-up ethics education for all researchers. They recommended the creation of a biology equivalent of to help the general public check whether claims made about synthetic biology are true.

You can download New Directions, and all the Bioethics Commission’s reports at

Here today to talk with us about the Bioethics Commission’s report New Directions is Dr. James W. Wagner. Dr. Wagner is the former President of Emory University and serves as Vice Chair of the Bioethics Commission.

Welcome, Dr. Wagner, thanks for being here.

Dr. Wagner:

It is my pleasure; I appreciate the opportunity.


Why was synthetic biology an important topic to address, and why was it selected as the Commission’s first topic?

Dr. Wagner:

Synthetic biology was indeed the first topic that the White House asked the Commission to address. Synthetic biology is the next extension of genetic manipulation and actually has a long history. We can go back to the vegetables that we enjoy, that are as large and juicy and prolific and disease resistant, because of the way we have done hybridization and cross-breeding. This next generation – what’s being called synthetic biology – is the science of beginning with chemicals on a laboratory table so to speak, and building genetic material, not drawing it out of another living organism, but building genetic material as we would synthesize other chemicals, and then inserting that genetic material into an organism to perform a certain function, or to enhance what that organism already does. If one could bring all of this to pass, the potential is exciting, right?

We can, and in fact, some work has already been done to produce chemicals like biofuels, or produce pharmaceuticals, for example, like treatments for malaria, that otherwise have been produced only by natural sources. Of course the fears that people have are that we might produce organisms either through, by accident or malevolence, that it could actually hurt society or hurt the environment that we might generate an organism that somehow dominates and replaces a naturally occurring species. And so the charge to the Commission was: How do we reap the benefits of synthetic biology and make sure we are doing so in such a way that it minimizes the potential for harm?


How have the Commission’s recommendations guided and informed the field of synthetic biology?

Dr. Wagner:

We had challenged the Executive Office of the President to exercise vigilance over this particular area and areas of all such technology, and so, in fact, the Executive Office of the President did launch the Emerging Technologies Interagency Policy Coordinating Committee, and this is a committee that works with the several agencies that fund the research and regulate development such as these, so that they could be aware of the advances going on that the government supports throughout the government, and the government regulates, and could apply these principles.

We also called for more funding in promising synthetic bio research areas, and in fact, we saw an increase in that. One example is Berkeley’s new Synthetic Biology Institute, that received multi-million dollar awards to explore synthetic biology. So the recommendations, in fact, have been adopted in some quarters. They have referred to, quite frequently, these principles. And we have even seen some of them enacted and carried out in ways that we think are shaping the future directions and pace at which synthetic biology develops.


The Commission’s report New Directions was published six years ago. Do the recommendations still have relevance today, given advances in synthetic biology?

Dr. Wagner:

They do indeed. The recommendations do have relevance today. The work of the Commission was inspired by and motivated by these breakthroughs in synthetic biology, such that we looked at fundamental principles that we felt would inform the advance of this very, very young field. There were five of them. They were public beneficence, responsible stewardship, intellectual freedom and responsibility, democratic deliberation, justice and fairness. Those principles became part of the recommendations that were at the underpinning of our report on synthetic biology. First of all, in my view, the ethical principles, these five in particular, are timeless. And they will hold up in the future no matter how advanced the research becomes. We find them to be foundational, and therefore, they’re deep. We find them to be applicable beyond synthetic biology, and therefore they are broad.

We also found that a lot of the moral objections and concerns, as we heard from people are concerns that we need to be aware of, on the one hand, but on the other hand, experts that we heard from told us that a number of the concerns that were raised are concerns that might be anticipated in the future but at least at the current pace at which the science and technology’s developing, they would be far into the future. So this is a way of saying, not only do we think that the recommendations are relevant today, but we do think the one recommendation that says we should keep vigilance, says that there will be room for, and need for, further recommendations down the road as the technology advances.


How does this report set the tone for the rest of the Commission’s work?

Dr. Wagner:

This was our first report, but we found ourselves in subsequent reports also recommending that there needs to be greater education in the area of bioethics, and also education of our public to understand the current state of the art. Again, the broad ethical underpinning [and] ethical principles, we found ourselves coming back to those over and over again in subsequent works that we did, whether it was work in neuroscience or in genome sequencing. We think that this whole business of the democratic deliberation principles, we found it also highlighted in our subsequent work. We did the appropriate thing in seeking sometimes underrepresented voices to come to our table. When we did our study on Ebola we spoke to those who suffered the fear and stigma that surrounded the disease at the time. So I believe that the deliberative process is another example that served our Commission going forward.


Thank you, Dr. Wagner. It was a pleasure having you with us.

Dr. Wagner:

You are most welcome. It was a pleasure.


You’ve been listening to Ethically Sound: A podcast of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. Thanks for joining us. You can check out our full series online at

Ethically Sound Episodes

The Bioethics Commission has launched a new podcast series entitled Ethically Sound.  

Each podcast is playable direct online from the link(s) below or from SoundCloud, iTunes or the Ethically Sound Playlist on Youtube.  Follow the hashtag #EthicallySound for launch announcements.

Safeguarding Children

Ethics and Ebola

Anticipate and Communicate

Privacy & Progress

Gray Matters

New Directions

Moral Science

Ethically Impossible

Bioethics for Every Generation

Charting a Path Forward

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