Synthetic biology, the field of science where life is altered, modernized and reconditioned to fit the needs of today, is one of the fastest growing fields of research in the scientific community. Engineers and scientists come together to create unimaginable and awe-inspiring organic machines by simply modifying the genome of organisms in a methodical manner. But where is this research taking us? What ethical inquiries must we pose to ensure that our future isn’t ruined by our own achievements? What can we do to ensure that the research is used to maximize the goodness in the world, and not the opposite? These are questions we must answer before we continue our efforts to expand our grasp of a technology we may not be able to master.

The modern era of biology has resulted in a novel field, synthetic biology, where life is engineered to suit the needs of our modern world. A standardized system of biological parts and methods has enabled engineers to create organisms with minimal effort, and it is only bound to get easier. Our rapid progression foresees a future where genetic code is transcribed, modified and produced by the common practitioner, a future where the opportunities for good are exceptional but the risk for peril inevitable. Referencing the MIT-professor Max Tegmark, synthetic biology is one of those things where it is best to get it right the first time, for there may be no second. Therefore, we must emphasize the importance of investigating and discussing the ethics, regulations and the future of synthetic biology in order to minimize the risk for disaster.

What opportunities may synthetic biology bring? Perhaps a more appropriate question is what won’t synthetic biology be able to achieve? Pharmaceuticals and biofuels are likely the first areas where engineered biological organisms will conquer the contemporary prevalent methods. Antibiotics and fossil fuels have showcased a lack of sustainability and we’re therefore in need of a viable solution, something that biological organisms can achieve. But inventions like these are merely scraping the utmost surface of capabilities of synthetic biology, and I urge you to delve deeper into your imagination with me.

Trees are wonderful creations. By adding nutrition, sunlight and carbon dioxide, they produce the most intricate and wondrous nanostructures - leaves. When the leaves fall during autumn we throw them away, and the intricate structures are gone to waste. What if we could engineer the genome of trees to grow structures which suit our needs? As autumn looms, we may be collecting computer chips, ready for use. This might seem far fetched, but hopefully it illustrates what the future of synthetic biology might hold. A world where the most absurd, bizarre and ridiculous imaginations become reality. However, there are many alternate realities where the obscure biological inventions don’t favor our wellbeing, as described in the following vignette.

In your workspace there is an ordinarily-looking printer. The printer is common amongst your contemporaries and prints both ink and biological structures. A recent jogging-incident has resulted in a nasty wound-infection on your heel and you decide to treat it with a bacteria which identifies the bacteria responsible for the infection and produces specific compounds to combat it. You google your local pharmacy, enter your unfortunate accident and they provide you with a link to download. You download a genetic sequence which codes for the bacterial genome and send it to your printer, and the bacteria are readily produced. You apply the bacterial solution to your wound and one day later, the infection is gone. The next day you check your email and find one from the local pharmacy, providing you with another link to download. Odd, they never email! You press the link and the printer starts buzzing. Later that day, your town is awfully silent and panic has struck the outside world. The genetic sequence you’ve downloaded carried a deadly, airborne and malicious virus, created by a terrorist group.

To avoid a permanent eradication of intelligent life on earth it is important for us to consider the regulations, laws and directives which need to be implemented in our future society. We must find a perfect balance between hindering the development of malevolent research and restricting honest and legitimate scientific research. To do so, we must identify what research leads to biological weapons of mass destruction and what research leads to the thriving of mankind. It is therefore infinitely important for scientists, philosophers, economists, politicians and engineers to cooperate in the endeavor of discovering what moral boundaries these laws should comply with.

Today’s state of regulations on synthetic biology is scattered and incoherent whilst also being overly restrictive and too loosely enforced. The US and the EU has dealt well with the biotechnological research of the 00’s and 10’s however, an overmounting amount of research is going to leave the current state of the European and US-legislation at a loss of words. The scientific community is working fast, and the jurisdictional community therefore needs to be three steps ahead when producing regulations. Envisioning what the future might hold and how our ethics is structured is therefore a necessity when constructing the regulations.