Ethics in iGEM

One of the most often mentioned words in synthetic biology is “ethics.” When we first began designing our project, it was clear that the ethics involved were difficult and complex. Instead of attempting to sidestep these issues, we decided to face them head-on. To this end, we began searching for resources and information on ethics in synthetic biology. Much to our surprise, we discovered there were very few official iGEM resources on the subject. At this point, we decided to comb through past iGEM team wikis, and, even more surprisingly, we learned that past teams had in fact contended with ethical issues, but this was done primarily by discussing their projects, and synthetic biology, with expert ethicists. In our opinion, this is not the essence of ethical thought in synthetic biology. Scientific endeavors are extremely dynamic; they grow, change, and evolve on an almost daily basis. One cannot retroactively apply ethical thought to a project simply by hearing an outsider’s expert opinion. In order to have conscientious and ethical science, the scientists themselves have to think ethically. Unfortunately, many undergraduate students complete their scientific studies without ever learning about ethics. As a result, many iGEM teams, including our own, lack the tools they need in order to effectively consider ethics in their projects.

Ethics Handbook

In order to learn more about ethics, and in an attempt to help future iGEM teams, we set out to create an ethics handbook. We consulted many experts [1] and discussed the best way to introduce and explain ethics to young synthetic biologists. Many students are undoubtedly familiar with this topic, but we decided to start from scratch, explaining even the most basic concepts and progressing all the way to complex bioethical case studies. Creating this handbook was both very difficult, and rewarding. We learned a tremendous amount in the process and discovered new and important ethical elements within our own project. In the final case study, we present how we contended with the ethical issues in our own project, and how these considerations were integrated into our planning and design.

We hope that this handbook will assist future iGEM team in their pursuit of ethical science, and serve as an inspiring example for creating new resources within iGEM.
A special thanks to our team member Yehuda Wexler for creating this unique handbook.

External link to the Ethics Handbook - HERE

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  1. See acknowledgments in the Ethics Handbook
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