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Synthetic biology and biosecurity challenging the “myths”

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Article number115
Number of pages15
JournalFrontiers in Public Health
Volume2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 21 Aug 2014

Bibliographical note

The three authors are listed in alphabetical order and have all contributed equally to this paper, including the conception, analysis and data collection of the research, drafting the text, and revising it critically for intellectual content.

Documents

  • Jefferson Lentzos and Marris 2014 Frontiers

    Jefferson_Lentzos_and_Marris_2014_Frontiers.pdf, 526 KB, application/pdf

    21/07/2015

    Final published version

    © 2014 Jefferson, Lentzos and Marris. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

King's Authors

Research outputs

Abstract

Synthetic biology, a field that aims to “make biology easier to engineer,” is routinely described as leading to an increase in the “dual-use” threat, i.e., the potential for the same scientific research to be “used” for peaceful purposes or “misused” for warfare or terrorism. Fears have been expressed that the “de-skilling” of biology, combined with online access to the genomic DNA sequences of pathogenic organisms and the reduction in price for DNA synthesis, will make biology increasingly accessible to people operating outside well-equipped professional research laboratories, including people with malevolent intentions. The emergence of do-it-yourself (DIY) biology communities and of the student iGEM competition has come to epitomize this supposed trend toward greater ease of access and the associated potential threat from rogue actors. In this article, we identify five “myths” that permeate discussions about synthetic biology and biosecurity, and argue that they embody misleading assumptions about both synthetic biology and bioterrorism. We demonstrate how these myths are challenged by more realistic understandings of the scientific research currently being conducted in both professional and DIY laboratories, and by an analysis of historical cases of bioterrorism. We show that the importance of tacit knowledge is commonly overlooked in the dominant narrative: the focus is on access to biological materials and digital information, rather than on human practices and institutional dimensions. As a result, public discourse on synthetic biology and biosecurity tends to portray speculative scenarios about the future as realities in the present or the near future, when this is not warranted. We suggest that these “myths” play an important role in defining synthetic biology as a “promissory” field of research and as an “emerging technology” in need of governance.

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