Standard Article

Synthetic Life Sciences

  1. Michael J. Selgelid

Published Online: 1 FEB 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee684

The International Encyclopedia of Ethics

How to Cite

Selgelid, M. J. 2013. Synthetic Life Sciences. The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 FEB 2013


The expression “synthetic life sciences” refers collectively to both synthetic genomics and synthetic biology (Samuel et al. 2009). Synthetic genomics involves the synthesis of genetic (e.g., DNA) sequences. While the Human Genome project depended upon (and itself accelerated) revolutionary developments in rapid DNA sequencing technology during the 1990s, synthetic genomics involves the more recent revolutionary development of technology that enables increasingly rapid synthesis of DNA sequences. It is now possible to synthesize entire genomes of some viruses and bacteria. The synthesis of virus genomes, furthermore, in some cases enables artificial synthesis of actual viruses. In the United States, for example, scientists used synthetic genomics to synthesize a polio virus (Cello et al. 2002). Following the published map of the polio genome, which is published on the Internet, they purchased and strung together corresponding DNA sequences. The addition of the synthesized genome to “cell juice” (a solution containing cellular ingredients but no live cells) resulted in a “live” virus that paralyzed and killed mice. Similar techniques enabled reconstruction of the 1918 Spanish Flu virus in 2005, and experts believe it would now be possible to synthesize the eradicated smallpox virus (see Dual-Use Research).


  • bioethics;
  • censorship;
  • engineering;
  • medicine;
  • practical (applied) ethics;
  • property rights;
  • risk;
  • science;
  • terrorism