Beyond patchwork precaution in the dual-use governance of synthetic biology

Alexander Kelle

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15 Citations (SciVal)


The emergence of synthetic biology holds the potential of a major breakthrough in the life sciences by transforming biology into a predictive science. The dual-use characteristics of similar breakthroughs during the twentieth century have led to the application of benignly intended research in e.g. virology, bacteriology and aerobiology in offensive biological weapons programmes. Against this background the article raises the question whether the precautionary governance of synthetic biology can aid in preventing this techno-science witnessing the same fate? In order to address this question, this paper proceeds in four steps: it firstly introduces the emerging techno-science of synthetic biology and presents some of its potential beneficial applications. It secondly analyses contributions to the bioethical discourse on synthetic biology as well as precautionary reasoning and its application to life science research in general and synthetic biology more specifically. The paper then identifies manifestations of a moderate precautionary principle in the emerging synthetic biology dual-use governance discourse. Using a dual-use governance matrix as heuristic device to analyse some of the proposed measures, it concludes that the identified measures can best be described as “patchwork precaution” and that a more systematic approach to construct a web of dual-use precaution for synthetic biology is needed in order to guard more effectively against the field’s future misuse for harmful applications.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1121-1139
Number of pages19
JournalScience and Engineering Ethics
Issue number3
Early online date25 Apr 2012
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2013


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