The emerging field of synthetic biology may help to solve societal problems—or it may create new ones. The potential risks and rewards of synthetic biology are evaluated in the Washington Watch column in the April 2011 issue of BioScience. An excerpt from the article, “Synthetic Biology Promises Risk and Reward,” follows:

In May 2010, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced the creation of the world’s first synthetic organism—a bacterial host cell whose self-replicating genome was human-made. This momentous achievement raises questions regarding the potential risks and benefits of synthesizing genomes, and eventually, organisms.

According to proponents, synthetic biology offers great promise. Some scientists suggest that the emerging field could lead to advancements in individualized medicine, more efficient vaccine and drug production, new renewable energy sources, higher-yielding and more sustainable crops, and organisms that can remediate harmful chemicals in the environment. Synthetic biology is also widely acknowledged to have the potential to adversely affect human health, the environment, and national security.

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