The Ethics of Synthetic Biology

Noted Innovator and Scholar Discusses Halachic Implications of Synthetic Biology at Yeshiva University

Dr. Joseph Jacobson, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), came to Yeshiva University on October 31 to discuss “Synthetic Biology: Towards the Creation of Novel Living Organisms from Chemical Parts and Halachic Implications.”

MIT's Dr. Joseph Jacobson met with YU students before his Oct. 31 lecture.

“Synthetic biology—the creation of new organisms—is a vast new field in which YU has the ability to take a huge leadership role regarding the ethics of it,” said Jacobson, addressing some 50 YU students, administrators and faculty members.

Jacobson is the author of more than 40 peer-reviewed journal and conference papers and holds several patents and patent pendings in display technology and printed electronics. A technical founder of E Ink Corporation, he received a 2001 Discover magazine award for technological innovation, and in 1999 he was named as one of Technology Review magazine’s 100 most influential innovators under the age of 35 for his research that has led to the development of “e-ink” and technologies for electronic books.

During the lecture, Jacobson provided a background to the field of synthetic biology, detailing its power and potential. He then addressed various ethical and halachic dilemmas that may come up and how halacha [Jewish law] might approach them. One such halachic question was whether or not the issur [prohibition] of kilayim [crossbreeding] applies to creating new cells.

“Professor Jacobson in so many ways could be the poster child for Torah U’madda,” said Yeshiva University President Richard M. Joel. “It is wonderful that we enjoy a growing relationship with him, and through him, as well with MIT. We look forward to the relationship only growing.”

Jacobson concluded his lecture by stating that the ability to create a human being—“to upgrade our own genomes”—is fast approaching and reiterated the need for an institution, like YU, to play a critical role in exploring the ethics behind this up and coming phenomenon.

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