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Ethical issues in synthetic biology

Ethical issues in synthetic biology

Synthetic biology is a relatively new field in biology in which engineering and biology are combined. It can be defined as the engineering of biology: the synthesis of complex, biologically based (or inspired) systems, which display functions that do exist in nature (Serrano, L2007) . There are a number of approaches to synthetic biology, bioengineering, redesigning life and creating alternative life each with their own ethical concerns (Deplazes, A2009), (Chopra, PK, A2006) . An important ethical issue for all disciplines is the safety issue, what are the risks posed by synthetic biology. Bhutkar 2005 distinguishes three safety risks. First, the risk of negative environmental impact this includes possible side effects, of genetically modified organism (GMO) that have to perform a task outside the lab, which can affect the environment negatively. Another risk is the risk to contaminate the natural genome pool, which includes genetic exchange between a GMO and a natural organism. The third risk mentioned by Bhutkar is the run-off risk, which includes possible unforeseen effects if a genetically modified organism has no controlled lifespan outside the lab. So the safety issue concerns the implication that GMOs could have on human health and the environment (Kelle, A2009), (Bhutkar, A2005) . Also security issues are important ethical issues for bioengineering. Synthetic biology is a dual-use technology; it can be used for good goals or misused and cause harm. Misusage of the techniques and GMOs could result, among other things, in bioweapons. Most parts of the genetic engineering process are standard labtechniques and therefore uncontrollable. Screening of ordered DNA and oligonucleotides for pathogenic agents and to license certain equipment and reagents could make it more controllable. This could be achieved by governmental regulation, however self regulation by the field of synthetic biology will be even better (Kelle, A2009), (Samuel, GN, et al.2009), (Nouri, A, et al.2009), (Nicholls, H2008) . Another ethical issue is the intellectual property of DNA. Synthetic biology forces rethinking about what should be patentable (Samuel, GN, et al.2009) ? Living organisms have been patented in the past, the first being a purified form of yeast that was patented by Louis Pasteur. The US patent and trademark office (PTO) has, beside the traditional patent requirements, two addition parts, which biotechnological systems should meet in order to be patentable. First is to show that the organism has little change of developing naturally. Second is that it should be shown that natural selection works against the GMO (Bhutkar, A2005) . The iGEM organisation circumvented this question by using an opensource system in which all Biobricks are documented and freely accessible. Another ethical issue, that is most prone in the creating alternative life part of synthetic biology, is the ‘playing God’ issue. This also raises the question what is life? This is an old philosophical question in which different views exists. One is that life is a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution (Cleland, CE, et al.2002) . Another similar definition states that life is related to possessing metabolic properties, being responsive to the environment, and having the ability to replicate (Bhutkar, A2005) . Another issue which relates to this question is where a line can be drawn between an engineered machine and a living organism. A possibility to make a distinction is when a ‘value’ is assigned to GMOs. Two values can be assigned, instrumental and intrinsic. Instrumental value is being defined by the use it has for humankind, whereas the intrinsic value, independent of the instrumental value, is assigned to any organism being valuable ‘in and of itself’. The question here is: do bacteria posses an intrinsic value? Also this issue becomes more prominent when the field of synthetic biology develops towards using higher organism and even humans.

What are the responsibilities of the researchers in this field concerning the above-mentioned ethical issues? First of all safety for themselves and co-workers is a responsibility for all researchers. Also these researchers should think about possible implication of the GMO outside the lab. Especially when the organism has a task to perform outside the lab. Once the implications are clear some actions should be taken to try to minimize the risk of negative effects of the GMO for the environment and human health. Another responsibility for the field of synthetic biology lies in the security issues. Self-regulation and also helping the governmental organisation by making effective governmental regulation could be considered as a responsibility of researchers in the field of synthetic biology. Participation in the public debates about synthetic biology could be important for the public opinion on synthetic biology. It should be avoided that the people outside the synthetic biology field are scared away and, without enough insights, feel that synthetic biology is unethical. Other more delicate ethical issues like the difference between life and nonlife and assigning value to the organism is a more complicated issue, how far does the responsibility of the researchers reach in this matter and who else are responsible? In scope of this question it is advisable that both researchers and students are being taught about the risks and ethical aspects of synthetic biology in order to create awareness. In line with this the question raises what the ethical responsibilities of iGEM participant are? Obviously safety in working with GMOs is important. However also the safety of the GMO should be considered, what are the implications for the environment and human health and how can the risk of possible negative effects be minimized? Security issues are not directly the responsibility of the iGEM participant however it should not be overlooked. It is the responsibility of the iGEM participant to think about the risk of dual-use for their particular project. The iGEM participant could also give more transparency to the field of synthetic biology towards the public by publication of their project plan and results on their wiki-page. It should be encourage that part of the wiki is written for non-participant and even non-scientist in order to allow the public to gain understanding in the possible applications of synthetic biology. Overall responsibility of iGEM participant lies in gaining awareness of the ethical issues concerning synthetic biology and in particular their own project. The teams should try to gain a clear understanding of the ethical issues of their own project and its application.

We are working on an environment related project aiming at reducing the amount of metal contamination of fresh water/rivers. In light of this link we want to adress the ethical questions generally raised around scientific research in general.

TODO Need for formulation of relavant questions concerning our project
TODO Get the answers!!


Homepage of Bioethics Journal via the Wiley Knowledge for Generations website.

Artikel2, gaat meer over security en kan daar goed van pas komen.