Synthetic Biology and Religion


Funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Gaymon Bennett, PI

This project charts how U.S. religious organizations representing Jews, Christians, and Muslims are coming to view developments in what has been called synthetic biology. Through direct engagement with individuals in these organizations, the project seeks to gain insight into how, specifically, religious views of science are currently being formed, and how such views shape and are shaped by engagement with public life. It will examine the sufficiency of familiar "church-state" and "public-private" framings of such engagement so as to track how the relation between synthetic biology and religion is being concretely instantiated and how it might change over time. (See Products below).

Religious Organizations

That religion plays a formative role in American public life is evident. How developments in science factor in is far from clear. How, exactly, do religious individuals and organizations form their views about biology and medicine? How do they connect tradition with new developments? And how do they turn views into practice, particularly in settings designated, formally, as secular? In order to answer these questions, members of the project team will engage directly with members of religious organizations, including:


  • Orthodox: Rabbinical Council of America
  • Conservative: The Rabbinical Assembly
  • Reformed: Central Conference of American Rabbis


  • Roman Catholic: US Council of Catholic Bishops
  • Mainline Protestant: The Episcopal Church in America
  • Evangelical: The Southern Baptist Convention


  • Sunni/Shi’a/Sufi: The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
  • Sunni/Shi’a/Sufi: The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)
  • Sunni/Shi’a/Sufi: Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)

Technology Focus

That biology similarly plays a formative role is also evident. It shapes how we relate to and imagine our bodies, food, environment and futures. Synthetic biology has been notably evocative in this regard. It has been framed in “salvational” terms, i.e. as capable of saving lives, economies, and ecosystems by “making biology easy to engineer.” What synthetic biologists are actually accomplishing, technically, economically, and culturally, is a more complicated story. How do synthetic biologists imagine living systems? How does this translate into new capabilities? And how does current work relate to what's being talked about? In order to answer these questions, members of the project team will review the work of biologists and engineers in areas where synthetic biologists promise transformative advances, including:


The promise and expectation that synthetic biology would play a leading role in the development of biofuels has been key to its establishment as a major domain of interest for public and private funders. The project team will create a working picture of the current state of play in so-called advanced biofuels and its political ramifications, specifying the contributions of synthetic biology researchers and organizations therein.

Genome Editing

During the Presidential Bioethics hearings on synthetic biology several scientific experts proposed that the critical contribution of synthethic biology was the hoped-for transition from being able to sequence and synthesize whole genomes, to being able to design and edit them. The project team will identify and track the progress of projects in genome editing, and examine the contributions of self-identified synthetic biologists therein.

Technological Facility

Several pominent synthetic biology organizations, including the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center and the BioBricks Foundation have styled synthetic biology as an effort to "make biology easy to engineer." Strategies for accomplishing such technological facility include reimagining biological complexity in terms of modular parts and developing computer aided design (cad) software for biology. The project team will follow and assess the efforts of several oganizations to achieve these goals. In a related fashion it will track the development of non-institutional or amateur biology, assessing how developments in synthetic are and are not contributing to the so-called democratization of biology capabilities.

Infectious Disease

Craig Venter and others have promised that technical developments in synthetic biology might advance processes for the creation of new vaccines, offering this promise as a major justification for government and private support. Building on the CBF's work on H5N1, the project team will track how and where developments in infectious disease seem to call for the insights and interventions of molecular biology and bioengineering, and how synthetic biologists are and are not making contributions.

In addition to conducting interviews and background research, the project will draw on findings from the Hastings Center project "Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology."

The results of inquiry will inform and structure ongoing interactions with representatives of religious organizations, engineers and biologists, religious scholars, policy makers, and others. Working documents charting project findings, including the outcomes of these interactions, will be posted here as they become available.


  • Biofuels: Draft CBF Biofuels Chart, Updated Oct. 2012 (K. Ulrich, Lead)
  • Biofuels: Key to Draft CBF Biofuels, Updated Oct. 2012 (K. Ulrich Lead)

Project Notebooks (password protected)