Synthetic Biology


What is synthetic biology?

The above clip shows some of the unbelievably far reaching possible impacts. The clip feels highly optimistic. Compare it to the one below.

The European Commission defines synthetic biology as “the application of science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the design, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials in living organisms.”

It involves a range of techniques to produce new life forms, forms untested by the challenges of evolution. Quakers, grounded in our values of peace, integrity, equality, simplicity, and respect for all creation, have an important role to play in response to synthetic biology. We are one of the faith communities that is most actively following developments in this field.

How is it being used?

Here are some of the latest headlines and developments from the field, shared in easily digestible updates for people with zero background in science (PDF):

Why are Quakers interested?

Quakers and synthetic biology
Quakers, biotechnology, synthetic biology

What do Quakers have to do with synthetic biology? Download this double-sided handout


Canadian Quakers have been considering queries like:

  1. How do we address ecological aspects of synthetic biology? e.g. impacts on biodiversity, synthetic organisms being untested by evolution and ecosystems
  3. How do we address social aspects of synthetic biology? e.g. equitable distribution of benefits, needs of the vulnerable
  5. How do we address the spiritual concerns regarding synthetic biology? e.g. the sacred in living beings and nature in relation to synthetic biology, the valuing of technology as compared to human wisdom and inner truth.

We distilled our thinking down into the 2017 position paper Synthetic biology: major issues of concern to Quakers.

The Winter 2016 issue of Quaker Concern pages 4-5 and this 2014 blog post offer two additional opinions about the connections between spirituality and synthetic biology.


What is CFSC’s mandate?

Canadian Yearly Meeting, the national body of Friends in Canada, has:

  1. Affirmed the seven principles identified in Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology, and asked CFSC to continue discerning ways to implement the seven principles:
    1. Employ the Precautionary Principle;
    2. Require mandatory synthetic biology-specific regulations;
    3. Protect public health and worker safety;
    4. Protect the environment;
    5. Guarantee the right-to-know and democratic participation;
    6. Require corporate accountability and manufacturer liability; and
    7. Protect economic and environmental justice.
  1. Requested that CFSC provide Canadian Quakers with easily understandable updates on synthetic biology;
  3. Asked us to find opportunities to link with other faith and community groups, and with Indigenous peoples, to share insights and discernment about synthetic biology; and
  5. Encouraged us to engage with other faith groups and interested parties, including organizations involved in research and/or manufacture in synthetic biology, to hold and/or participate in conferences that address ethical, spiritual, social, and economic aspects of synthetic biology.

The metaphors of cells as machines or DNA as computer code are ubiquitous. How do these metaphors help or limit our thinking?


How did Quakers form their positions on synthetic biology?

In 2013 we put together a kit of background information about synthetic biology (while the world has changed a lot since then, much of this is still relevant today). We heard back from 10 Monthly Meetings from across Canada who formed study groups to discuss these issues. Some of what they said is available in the double-sided handout Quakers & Synthetic Biology.

Annapolis Valley Monthly Meeting‘s study group developed an agenda template which you may find useful when considering synthetic biology. Many commented about the far reaching and overwhelming implications of all of this, and how daunting it can seem to begin a conversation. So the agenda template should be a big help!

In early 2014 CFSC members and associates produced a Background Report on Synthetic Biology which weaves together the common responses we heard from Quaker Meetings.

In addition to our own work, Quakers have played an active role in the Faith and Life Sciences group of the Canadian Council of Churches, which has published a thorough curriculum for churches to assess the impacts of biotechnology – When Christian Faith and Genetics Meet.

Synthetic biology research at NASA Ames – credit Alexander Van Dijk


Historic Background: Development of a Quaker concern

So how did biotechnology originally grow into such a concern for Canadian Friends? The story is actually a good way to illustrate the development of a concern within the Quaker community.

Anne Mitchell, CFSC associate member for biotechnology concerns, began representing Friends on this issue when she joined the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee (CBAC; established in 2000). Anne brought a concern about patenting of higher life forms – the oncomouse, a mouse genetically modified for cancer research – to Canadian Yearly Meeting in 2002, having tested it at her local Meeting.

A minute was developed, “What is it in nature and in human knowledge that we have the right to own?” Anne brought this to the Governing Board of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC).

The Governing Board decided to intervene before the Supreme Court of Canada on the issue of patenting of the oncomouse.

Anne’s discussions with Friends and her experiences at the World Council of Churches Global Consultation on Genetics and New Biotechnologies were presented at Canadian Yearly Meeting in August 2008, and documented in: