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From NPR, writing about the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling:

The court’s unanimous decision Thursday, Reuters writes, was “a mixed ruling. … The nine justices reached a compromise by saying synthetically produced genetic material can be patented but that genes extracted from the human body, known as isolated DNA, do not merit the same legal protections.”

What is synthetic biology all about? From Wilson Center’s Synth Bio project:

All living organisms contain an instruction set that determines what they look like and what they do. These instructions are encoded in the organism’s DNA — long and complex strings of molecules embedded in every living cell. This is an organism’s genetic code (or “genome”). 

Humans have been altering the genetic code of plants and animals for millennia, by selectively breeding individuals with desirable features. As biotechnologists have learned more about how to read and manipulate this code, they have begun to take genetic information associated with useful features from one organism, and add it into another one. This is the basis of genetic engineering, and has allowed researchers to speed up the process of developing new breeds of plants and animals. 

Here’s how our experts, Todd Kuiken and Eleanore Pauwels, explain it:

Synthetic biology is defined as the engineering of biology. It harnesses the fields of engineering and biology to designand construct novel artificial biological pathways, organisms, devices, or systems and to redesign existing natural biological systems to achieve new functions.

But what makes this emerging technology a significant shift in scientific approaches?

As a new mode of advanced manufacturing, synthetic biology professes wide applications in fields such as energy, medicine, and materials engineering. The Utah-based life sciences firm Beachhead Consulting estimates that the synthetic biology research market has the potential to grow to $3.5 billion over the next decade, and current estimates by Lux Research indicate that one-fifth of the chemical industry (now estimated at $1.8 trillion) could depend on synthetic biology by 2015.

As you can probably gather, this raises serious ethical dilemmas, like who is doing the work, how, who funds it, and on and on. Here’s our guide to the ethical issues:

Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology by The Wilson Center

At the same time, synthetic biology unlocks enormous potential for “personalized medicine” and BioSecurity.

Again, Kuiken and Pauwels: 

Beyond the Laboratory and Far Away - A Wilson Center Policy Brief by The Wilson Center

[Illustration by Harry Campbell]

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