• Environmental remediation. Synthetic biology researchers have focused on developing organisms capable of performing certain clean-up functions, such as the digestion of oil slicks and the removal of heavy metals from soil. A military application of clean-up organisms might be the removal of nerve gas residues from contaminated surfaces or the use of enzymes that can neutralize nerve agents if the human body is exposed to them.
Many of the ELSI concerns raised by synthetic biology are quite similar to those raised earlier in considerations of recombinant DNA technology—R&D on both technologies seek to create biological entities that are not found in nature. In both cases, these issues involve safety construed broadly (applications of synthetic biology or recombinant DNA getting out of control or harming the environment), undesirable side effects if such applications are used, and malicious use.22
What sets synthetic biology apart from other technologies developed with similar intent is the approach it takes to creating these new biological entities. Modularization of biological components with predictable behavior is intended to make creation of such entities easier, less expensive, and more reliable. These properties are expected to enable a broad spectrum of work in synthetic biology—much broader than what might be possible in the absence of these properties.
Recognizing the inherent ethical and societal issues that might arise from its investment in synthetic biology, DARPA created in 2011 an advisory committee modeled after its Privacy Panel to advise the Living Foundries program staff. Members of the advisory committee receive compensation from DARPA and are leading authorities in diverse fields including ethics, biosecurity, intellectual property, and environment risk and regulation. The advisory committee reviews all proposals and highlights potential areas of concern, which may include how the research is conducted and disseminated as well as how the research might be used.23 Additional discussion of the advisory committee is provided in Chapter 7.
The discussion below of ethical, legal, and societal issues draws heavily on two sources: a 2009 report from the Hastings Center and the Woodrow Wilson Center titled Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology: An
22 See, for example, Jonathan Tucker and Raymond Zilinskas, “The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology,” The New Atlantis 12(Spring):25-45, 2006, available at http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-promise-and-perils-of-synthetic-biology.
23 Conversation with Alicia Jackson, DARPA, Ken Oye, and Anne-Marie Mazza, June 25, 2012.