Synthetic Biology and the Human Future

 Synthetic Biology and the Human Future


The “Synthetic Biology and the Human Future” track was comprised of three sessions, which were held:

1. Monday, July 23, 2:45-5:15 (2 h 30 m)
2. Tuesday, July 24, 2:00-4:00 (2 h)
3. Wednesday, July 25, 10:45-12:00 (1 h 15 m)

This track was intended to address key questions involving possible advocacy initiatives concerning the development and application of synthetic biology and related emerging technologies, with particular attention to human biomedical applications. The focus is largely on initiatives in the United States, but with reference to international developments as well.

The outline of these sessions is shown below. After the outline, Item B describes the three key proposed initiatives in more detail. Item C describes several additional initiatives of interest. Item D lists useful specific suggestions made by participants in the synthetic biology conference calls.

These notes show in brackets the section of the longer Background Memo that will be available at the Meeting and used as a resource for this discussion.

Session 1: Laying a Groundwork; Initiative Options - Monday 7/23, 2:45-5:15 (2 h 30 m)

The first part of this session was intended to lay a groundwork for our discussion by touching briefly on core concerns, outcomes sought, and current and past activism (90 m). The second part of this session introduced the proposed initiatives (50 m).  Rich Hayes and Daniel Sharp facilitated.

  • Introductions and overview (5 m)  
  • Core Concerns: Why are we really concerned about synthetic biology? How can the major concerns be succinctly named and described? Is there a “taxonomy” of concerns that might be useful? (30 m) [Background Memo Section III]
    • Resource people:  Bruce Jennings, David King, Stuart Newman, Jaydee Hanson  
  • What are the major outcomes we seek, regarding both policy and “hearts and minds”? What is the state of advocacy organizing focused specifically on synthetic biology, at both the international and the domestic US levels? (25 m) [Background Memo Sections IV]
    • Resource people: Eric Hoffman, Jayee Hanson, others
  • Contextualizing Synthetic Biology: How might initiatives on synthetic biology build on, relate to or learn from ongoing initiatives addressing related biotechnologies? (30 min) [Background Memo Section II]
    • Resource people: Jaydee Hanson (GE Foods & Nanotechnology),  Nina Mak (GE Animals), Susan Wright and Bob Gould (Bioweapons), others
  • What specific initiatives might be undertaken at this time and are worth considering in more detail? (50 m) [Background Memo Section V]
    • Human Applications of Synthetic Biology Document and Advocacy Initiative:
            Initiating discussant: Eric Hoffman
    • A Communications, Messaging, and Web-based Initiative:
            Initiating discussant: Gina Maranto
    • Foundational & Long-term Thinking and Communications Initiative:
            Initiating discussant: Bruce Jennings
    • Others: Local synbio lab organizing; anti-corporate campaigns, more
            Resource People: Tim Schwab (Anti-corporate campaigns), Jaydee Hanson (Policy Working Group), Bob Gould and Susan Wright (Bioweapons Initiatives), Eric Hoffman (local lab organizing)

Session 2: In-Depth Discussion of Proposed Initiatives - Tuesday 7/24, 2:00-4:00 (2 h)

For this session we divided into three, or possibly more, breakout groups for the first 1 h 30 m of the session, during which we discussed in depth each of the proposed initiatives introduced during Monday’s session.  For each initiative we considered specific objectives, key constituencies, action plans and more. For the final 30 minutes of the session, we reconvened and offered brief reports on what we had covered, and considered how to most productively structure the final session on Wednesday.  The three breakout groups, their facilitators, and initiating discussants were:

  • Human Applications of Synthetic Biology Document and Advocacy Initiative:
          Facilitator: Richard Hayes 
          Initiating discussants: Eric Hoffman, Robin Pierce, Stuart Newman
  • A Communications, Messaging, and Web-based Initiative:
          Facilitator and initiating discussant: Gina Maranto
          Initiating discussant: Connie St. Louis
  • Foundational & Long-term Thinking and Communications Initiative:
          Facilitator: Daniel Sharp
          Initiating discussant: Bruce Jennings, J.P. Harpignies, others


Session 3: Next Steps - Wednesday 7/25, 10:45 – 12:00 (1 h 15 m)

We used this final session to tie up loose ends on what we came up with on Tuesday, considered priority topics further, and made plans for continued activities in the fall and beyond: who might do what, who to reach out to, funding opportunities, and timelines.  Erich Pica facilitated.  



On Tuesday we began with three 90-minute breakout sessions to consider the three proposed initiatives in more depth.  

1. Human Applications of Synthetic Biology Document and Advocacy Initiative

The Tarrytown Meetings have given particular emphasis to human biomedical applications of emerging biotechnologies, and to the social, political and cultural challenges that these technologies pose.  Public concern about synthetic biology has to date focused mostly on bioenergy and food and agricultural applications. Increasingly, however, synthetic biology is becoming understood as a new driver of techno-eugenic visions for manipulating the human body and the human genome. We have both the opportunity and the obligation to draw attention to these developments and to shape understanding about them among the general public, opinion leaders and policy makers.

It was proposed that we prepare a foundational document that addresses these developments and concerns, and promote it or its contents in several ways:  

  1. An authoritative Whitepaper or Report: A whitepaper or report grounded in core values, could be prepared and promoted.  It would survey recent developments in synthetic biology, identify challenges and dangers they post, assess the level of public understanding of these developments, and propose specific actions that policy makers should to consider. It might run between 15-30 pages, or perhaps longer.  
  2. A Policy Whitepaper for the US federal government: A modified version of the Whitepaper might be prepared and addressed to the US federal government in early 2013. Preparation could begin this fall, but would be completed only after the November 2012 elections. This Whitepaper could be directed towards the Executive Office, the relevant federal agencies (NIH, NAS, FDA, etc), and to the US Congress.
  3. A Sign-On Statement: A statement based on the Whitepaper might be prepared that would make the case against modification of human beings using synthetic biology and related technologies, and circulated for endorsement by organizations and influential individuals, after which it would be publicized.

Background Memo Section V A 1 has further details and discussion of options.

Key Questions: 

  • If we’re concerned about human biotech generally, does it make sense to focus narrowly on synthetic biology in such whitepapers, reports or statements?  Should we instead focus more broadly on human genetic technologies?
  • What sort of reception can we realistically expect such a document to have?  Which versions might be highest impact, and for which audiences?
  • What are the core dangers and risks we wish to highlight?  What values might motivate our response?  
  • What is a reasonable timeline for preparing such documents?


2. A Communications, Messaging & Social Media/Web-Based Initiative

It is imperative that we communicate effectively about our biopolitical concerns with key constituencies, opinion leaders, public officials and others. Regarding the developing field of synthetic biology, the great majority of the public and policy makers have little awareness or understanding of it. Unsurprisingly, surveys show that when presented with glowing accounts of the promise that synthetic biology offers, people will tend to affirm it, but that when presented with balanced accounts of both potential benefits and potential risks, people quickly adopt a more precautionary stance. We thus have a rare opportunity to shape opinions on an important new technology before they become internalized, and thus altered only with difficulty. 

This breakout session considered concrete suggestions for what a communications initiative focused on synthetic biology might entail. The session addressed such questions as: What is our message, or messages, concerning synthetic biology? What sorts of framings might resonate with different publics? How  might a positive, rather than simply negative and critical, vision of the future concerning synthetic biology be crafted? What communications media are available and accessible for such an effort? 

Major media and communications initiatives can be costly.  For this reason, we focused initially on low-budget/high-impact options.  One option that was suggested was a social media and web-based initiative, involving a team of colleagues who collaborate on preparing, placing and promoting a series of blog posts, articles, comments, and the like on a strategically chosen set of influential on-line outlets, over a period of perhaps 9-15 months.

A more ambitious proposed initiative would involve major conventional outlets, including high-profile press and journalism outlets, public symposia, and the like. These would clearly require major new funding. See Memo V A 2 for further details and discussion.  

Key Questions:

  • Who are our audience or audiences? What messages might resonate with different groups?
  • What might the structure for a social media and web-based initiative look like?  How can such an endeavor be designed in an effective manner, to have a real impact?


3. Foundational & Long-term Thinking and Communications Initiative

A number of initiatives are currently underway addressing challenges posed by synthetic biology, and we proposed additional ones in this memo and in these sessions at Tarrytown.  However, it is the case that broader, more fundamental questions regarding synthetic biology remain, and have a bearing on our more immediate work.  Some of these concern synthetic biology’s novelty and utility as a point of advocacy focus: Just how new is the field of synthetic biology, and how distinct is it from older genetic engineering techniques? Are the risks posed by synthetic biology truly new, or are they simple extensions of risks posed by more traditional forms of genetic and biological modification? Does it make sense to focus our efforts – and frame our messages – on “synthetic biology” per se, or should we focus on particular applications of it?    Do we need a new language and vocabulary for thinking about emerging and converging technologies as a whole? What is the long-term vision of what we really want to have happen?  From a shorter term and more immediately pragmatic perspective, we gravitate quickly to a necessary but limited set of conventional policy tools: guidelines, regulations, oversight, education, and (selective) prohibitions.  But are there other factors, perhaps of a cultural, socio-psychological, philosophical or spiritual sort, that must be engaged if we are to succeed in some deeper sense?

It was not possible to fully answer questions of this scope and complexity in the brief time allotted at Tarrytown, but we began to scratch the surface, and to explore ways that this sort of discussion could be initiated and brought to larger critical audiences and constituencies.  Some of these might include:

  1. An initiative to place key articles addressing issues in synthetic biology and related emerging technologies in influential high-level opinion journals, law reviews, anthologies, etc., and to further promote awareness through speaking, conference participation, and the like.
  2. An ongoing working group to further explore foundational questions concerning synthetic biology and related emerging technologies. Such a group could be a key resource for advocates working on more short-term campaigns, as well as a worthwhile undertaking in its own right. We would need to discuss the structure of this working group, what topics it might consider, how it might be managed, and the possibilities for logistical and funding support.

Background Memo Section V A has further details and discussion.

Key Questions:

  • How can foundational reflections on synthetic biology and other emerging technologies help activists in their more pragmatic, day-to-day, policy- and outcome-oriented work?
  • How can some of these foundational reflections be communicated and opened to the general public, opinion leaders and policy makers?



The following four topics have been suggested as additional initiatives for discussion at Tarrytown:

  1. Policy & Governance Working Group: Any successful effort on synthetic biology will eventually have to answer key questions concerning the sorts of policies and governance structures that need to be in place to regulate such technologies. While a number of reports and documents have discussed synthetic biology policy (see Memo- VI [Appendices]), many of these fail to offer robust governance options. A policy working group might seek to develop practicable regulatory recommendations, and present these in a formal report or whitepaper. (See Background Memo Section V B, 1).
  2. Local Lab-Focused or Specific Anti-Corporate Initiatives:  In addition to broader initiatives which attempt to address synthetic biology writ large, a number of more local and specific possibilities for action also exist. For example, efforts have begun in the San Francisco Bay Area to challenge the Richmond, CA synthetic biology laboratory being built under the auspices of the University of California. There might be similar local possibilities for action. Specific anti-corporate initiatives might also be explored, analogous to the way in which the anti-GMO movement has used Monsanto as an institution for directed attention.  (see Background Memo Section V B, 2). 
  3. Initiatives on Synthetic Biology and GE food, crops, plants, and animals: Important work remains to be done to connect synthetic biology to environmental and anti-GMO campaigns. This work is especially pressing, given that synthetic biology will likely move into food and agriculture increasingly in the coming years. There are a number of on-going initiatives addressing all of these, and other possibilities should be considered (see Memo V B, 3).
  4. Synthetic Biology and Bioweapons: The possibility of bioweapons or other agents of intended harm involving synthetic biology raises concerns for human security and the human future. An initiative on this subject might seek to incorporate a specific ban on the use of synthetic biology for the construction of bioweapons into the Biological Weapons Convention. (see Background Memo Section V B, 4).

For additional thoughts on initiatives, see Section V B, 1-4 in the Background Memo.  



This track was the product of extensive dialogue with participants in the Tarrytown network, and others. Below is a list of some of the key suggestions made during this planning and discussion process thus far. They are intended as material for reflection, as well as to give a sense of the variety of perspectives present in the room.


  • Values Grounding: We should focus on a clear articulation of our shared values relative to synthetic biology. i.e. why do we object to some aspects of synthetic biology. We can use these values as a central part of our communications efforts.
  • Nested Initiatives: rather than focus on a single “campaign,” a nested series of initiatives might be more productive. We might need to communicate differently with different constituencies, and not every group will share all our concerns.
  • Anti-Corporate & Lab-Focused Efforts: local campaigns against specific corporate entities and specific synbio labs are a potential ‘low hanging fruit’.  We should try to identify such possibilities and not forget the corporate angle.
  • Human Focus: We need to keep our discussion of synbio focused on the human GE issues that have formed the focal point of the Tarrytown Meetings thus far.  Special attention should be placed on how synbio intersects with our other core concerns about genetic modification. We should clearly separate the biomedical from the non-medical uses of synthetic biology.  
  • Military Focus: the military and bioweapons angle of synthetic biology is also crucial. We shouldn’t leave this out of our discussions because it is so consequential and determines so much of the landscape of the field.
  • Framing & Debunking: “Hype” is an especially salient feature of the field. Our efforts need to be attuned to debunking and countering the spin and ideology surrounding synthetic biology. We need to think about deconstructing these narratives, and creating new positive ones of our own. 
  • Foundational Questions: even if we want specific initiatives to transpire post-tarrytown, we can’t leave out foundational, philosophical and historical questions (e.g. is synbio new? is it a field or a frame? do we need a new language to frame our critique of biotechnology?, etc.). These questions remain essential for the long-term success of our future efforts.
  • Multiple Simultaneous Critiques: We need to carve out a space to critique both the hype of synthetic biology (e.g. there are no “synthetic organisms” yet made) and the consequences (if they are made, they raise real dangers).  Both messages are essential.
  • Governance, Policy & Democracy: We need to focus on the issue of democratic governance when discussing synthetic biology policy. Democracy, not simply technological progress, should one of the bedrock values guiding our discussions.
  • Policy Limitations: While policy is essential, it’s not a panacea. We need to be sure to address the broader, deeper issues as well. Policy can be rigid, and often isn’t very good at dealing with unknown and unpredictable risks.