Team:OLS Canmore AB CA/Bioethics






The work done so far in synthetic biology may only be the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Drew Endy has stated that the “scope of material I can work with is not limited to the set of things we inherit from nature.” The growth in the number of teams involved in iGEM over the last decade has been staggering. Not many other fields of science have experienced the rapid growth that synthetic biology has. Ethics is described as “rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad” (1), what ethical concerns may exist?


Synthetic Biology is the manipulation of DNA or genes to create new qualities or characteristics in readily controllable and standardized biological systems. As it has such groundbreaking potential for change in regards to human life, the ethics of synthetic biology should be considered before work in this field of science. The Catholic Church expresses the viewpoint that altering certain things in genetics is ethical, and not sinful, however, humankind must never attempt to create life (2). Most notably in recent history there have been attempts to create synthetic cells with various degrees of sophistication. These attempts have been described as producing a large synthetic genome, and not "synthetic life" itself. Despite such dismissals that we may not in fact have “created life” we should be mindful that “reducing life, even though it is non-human life, to merely another quantity that we control, exploit, and subject to market forces is to coarsen our sensibilities towards an important measure of our own being. In every living organism, whether humble bacterium, plant or animal, we encounter a faint glimmer of our own delicate life.” (3) The scope of the high school iGEM project exists within the boundaries of altering, and not creating, life for the betterment of humankind.


Possible misuse of synthetic biology should not dictate whether scientific advancements should be made, but rather how they are regulated. In the MIT Video “The Implications of Synthetic Biology” (4), Drew Endy was asked if a one percent misuse of this powerful technology could potentially set back the ninety-nine percent of researchers advancing the field for good. Few people would argue against breakthroughs in the form of biotherapies, more affordable pharmaceuticals, or eco-friendly bio-fuels. The Catholic Church promotes stewardship and involvement in all scientific fields to increase the potential of nature (5). Nonetheless, it is not implausible that this science can be misused, and it would be ignorant to deny this. It is however possible to support open source global communication to maintain awareness of the reasonably possible one percent of misuse. The human practices component of iGEM, including outreach, as well as the general expectation to build projects for the betterment of society forge in the direction of the ninety-nine percent of the possibly good uses.


Due to the increasing popularity of genetic engineering it is vital that ethical concerns remain as part of the human practices portion of every project whether Catholic or not. Discussing ethics in the open serves as a partial barrier to possible misuse of the science by means of awareness. Through the continual study and development in the field of synthetic biology it is envisioned “that everyone might see clearly that the Church and her Pastors are no opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but embrace it, encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible devotion (Pope Leo XIII) (6).” This devotion must include the sharing of ethical concerns throughout the diverse, global community of the world today.


1 - 2014

2 - Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994 Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Page 474-1954

3 - Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. “Making Sense out of Bioethics”

4 – MIT video “The Implications of Synthetic Biology” with Drew Endy,

5 – Arthur Caplan, “Synthetic Biology: Is Ethics a Showstopper?

6 – Pope Leo XIII,

2014 Our Lady of the Snows iGEM