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Engineering Life: Synbio, Bioethics & Public Policy (Coursera)

Synbio is a diverse field with diverse applications, and the different contexts (e.g., gain-of-function research, biofuels) raise different ethical and governance challenges. The objective of this course is to increase learners’ awareness and understanding of ethical and policy/governance issues that arise in the design, conduct and application of synthetic biology. The course will begin with a short history of recombinant DNA technology and how governance of that science developed and evolved, and progress through a series of areas of application of synbio.

Content will be presented in many forms, including not only reading and lectures, but also recorded and live interviews and discussions with scientists, ethicists and policy makers. Learners will have the opportunity to think, write and talk about the issues and challenges in their own work and in real-life case examples. A final project will engage students in the development of governance models for synbio.

Who is this class for: This course is targeted to trainees and professionals in synthetic biology, though others familiar with the science may also find the course interesting, accessible and useful. All materials are in English, so English reading and speaking proficiency is necessary.

Syllabus

WEEK 1

Welcome to Engineering Life: SynBio, Bioethics & Public Policy

Recombinant DNA Technology: Science and History

We start the course by learning a bit about the history and context of the development of recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology in the 1970s, the ethics and policy issues raised by that science, and how those issues remain with us today in synthetic biology. The work of the week includes lecture videos, readings, and an interview with LeRoy Walters, who was involved in the discussions and debates about rDNA in its early years. The week will conclude with a quiz.

Graded: Week 1 Quiz

WEEK 2

GOF Research

In Week 2 we will learn about and discuss gain of function (GOF) research and the dual-use concerns raised by synthetic biology. The work of the week includes lecture videos, a number of outside videos, and readings. The assessment this week will be your first peer-assessed project, and will focus on identifying ethical duties related to GOF research policy.

Graded: Identifying Ethical Issues

WEEK 3

Biofuels

This week, we’ll learn about biofuels, the complex task of balancing the many ethical issues they raise, and the role of synthetic biology in biofuels development. The work of the week includes lecture videos, one outside video, readings, and an interview with Deborah Scott about biofuels governance. The week will conclude with a quiz.

Graded: Week 3 Quiz

WEEK 4

Human Health

This week we will learn a bit about applications of synthetic biology to human health, and the ethics of human subjects research. The work of the week includes lecture videos, one outside video, and readings. The assessment this week will be your second peer-assessed project, and will build on your first project, from Week 2. This project will focus on identifying stakeholders in a policy decision, their interests in the decision, and the related ethical duties of the decision-maker.

Graded: Stakeholder Analysis

WEEK 5

Governance

In the final week of the course, we will talk about both models of governance for emerging biotechnologies and the role of public engagement in the development and oversight of the science. The work of the week includes lecture videos, one outside video, and readings, as well as interviews with LeRoy Walters and Jane Calvert. The final course project builds on the Week 2 and 4 peer-assessed projects, and goes a step further, asking you to develop and defend a decision-making process for a government policy related to the release of genetically modified mosquitoes.

Graded: Final Project

ENROLL IN COURSE