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Revision as of 16:59, 9 October 2009


Human Practice




Ethical issues in synthetic biology

Ethical issues in synthetic biology

Synthetic biology is a relatively new field of 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 not exist in nature [1]. There are a number of approaches to synthetic biology, bioengineering, redesigning life and creating alternative life, each with their own ethical concerns [2, 3].

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 a genetically modified organism (GMO) that has to perform a task outside the lab, possibly affecting the environment negatively. Second 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 GMO has no controlled lifespan outside the lab. The safety issue thus concerns the implication that GMOs could have on human health and the environment [4, 5].

Also security is an important ethical issue for bioengineering. Synthetic biology is a dual-use technology; it can be used for good goals or be 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 lab techniques 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 [4, 6-8].

Another ethical issue is the intellectual property of DNA. Synthetic biology forces to rethink about what should be patentable [6]. 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, besides the traditional patent requirements, two additional requirements, which biotechnological systems should meet in order to be patentable. First is to show that the organism has little chance of developing naturally. Second is that it should be shown that natural selection works against the GMO [5]. The iGEM organisation circumvented this issue by using an opensource system in which all Biobricks are documented and freely accessible.

Another ethical issue that is most prominent 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 [9]. Another similar definition states that life is related to possessing metabolic properties, being responsive to the environment, and having the ability to replicate [5].

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 be aware of 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 organization 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 dangerous.

Other more delicate ethical issues like the difference between life and nonlife and assigning value to the organism are more complicated. 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 another issue is raised: what are the ethical responsibilities of iGEM participant? 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 encouraged 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.


1. Serrano, L., Synthetic biology: promises and challenges. Molecular Systems Biology, 2007. 3.

2. Deplazes, A., Piecing together a puzzle An exposition of synthetic biology. Embo Reports, 2009. 10(5): p. 428- 432.

3. Chopra, P.K., A, Engineering life through Synthetic Biology. In silico Biology, 2006. 6(0038).

4. Kelle, A., Synthetic biology and biosecurity From low levels of awareness to a comprehensive strategy. Embo Reports, 2009. 10: p. S23-S27.

5. Bhutkar, A., Synthetic Biology: Navigating the Challenges Ahead. The journal of Biolaw and Business, 2005. 8(2).

6. Samuel, G.N., M.J. Selgelid, and I. Kerridge, Managing the unimaginable Regulatory responses to the challenges posed by synthetic biology and synthetic genomics. Embo Reports, 2009. 10(1): p. 7-11.

7. Nouri, A. and C.F. Chyba, Proliferation-resistant biotechnology: an approach to improve biological security. Nature Biotechnology, 2009. 27(3): p. 234-236.

8. Nicholls, H., Synthetic biology. Lancet, 2008: p. S45-S49.

9. Cleland, C.E. and C.F. Chyba, Defining 'life'. Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, 2002. 32(4): p. 387-393.