Synthetic biology in space: Considering the broad societal and ethical implications

Margaret S. Race, Jacob Moses, Christopher McKay, Kasthuri J. Venkateswaran

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Although the field of synthetic biology is still in its infancy, there are expectations for great advances in the coming decades, both on Earth and potentially in space. Promising applications for long duration space missions include a variety of biologically engineered products and biologically aided processes and technologies, which will undoubtedly be scrutinized for risks and benefits in the broad context of ethical, legal and social realms. By comparing and contrasting features of Earth-based and space-applied synthetic biology, it is possible to identify the likely similarities and differences, and to identify possible challenges ahead for space applications that will require additional research, both in the short and long terms. Using an analytical framework associated with synthetic biology and new technologies on Earth, this paper analyses the kinds of issues and concerns ahead, and identifies those areas where space applications may require additional examination. In general, while Earth-and space-based synthetic biology share many commonalities, space applications have additional challenges such as those raised by space microbiology and environmental factors, legal complications, planetary protection, lack of decision-making infrastructure(s), long duration human missions, terraforming and the possible discovery of extraterrestrial (ET) life. For synthetic biology, the way forward offers many exciting opportunities, but is not without legitimate concerns-for life, environments and society, both on Earth and beyond.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)133-139
Number of pages7
JournalInternational Journal of Astrobiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • ethics
  • risks of new technology
  • societal impacts
  • space applications
  • synthetic biology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physics and Astronomy (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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