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Disarmament

BWC MX 2008 Synthetic Biology Seminar

On the first day of the 2008 Meeting of Experts of the Biological Weapons Convention, the Geneva Forum, in cooperation with the Implementation Support Unit, held the seminar Synthetic Biology: Engineering the Life Sciences. This event included audiovisual interventions by synthetic biologists, science journalists and biohackers.

Background

Historically, as our understanding of scientific disciplines has developed, so has our ability to apply them in ways that make our lives easier and better. Newtonian physics led to mechanical engineering; the mastering of electricity made electrical engineering possible and advances in chemistry brought us chemical engineering. Likewise, recent advances in the biological sciences are, for the first time, presenting us with the possibility of engineering living organisms.

What does this mean? Biological engineering, also known as 'synthetic biology,' would enable a design-oriented approach to the production of biological entities. It would mean moving from the question, "what can I make this bacteria do?" to "I need a bacteria to do X, how do I make it?" Synthetic biology expands upon genetic engineering techniques to make it easier to build living organisms. Because it can handle complex information in a non-specialist setting, it has the potential to bring biology out of the laboratory and into our everyday lives.

All scientific advances bring with them the potential for misuse. There is no reason to expect that the establishment of a discipline of biological engineering will be any different - except in this case it would breach international law. The ban on biological weapons is absolute; biology must only be used for peaceful purposes. It is necessary to think hard and early about how we can ensure that this norm is maintained into an era of synthetic biology. This seminar will bring together perspectives from synthetic biologists, science journalists and bio-hackers to explain why the international policy-making community should be taking notice of these developments and why it is in everyone's interest to do so sooner rather than later.

Content

The event was chaired by Partick McCarthy, Geneva Forum Coordinator.

Introductions to the various audiovisual interventions was provided by Piers Millett, BWC Implementation Support Unit.

The seminar made use of a number of publicly available online video clips:


The implications of synthetic biology were dsicussed by Robert Friedman, Director of West Coast Operations and Vice President for Public Policy of the J Craig Venter Institute, USA.

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