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 GMO 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 local legislation and project specific safety risks should be considered.


Also security issues are important ethical issues for bioengineering and when defining the difference between bio-safety and bio-security the easiest discrimination is that between mistakes and that of bad intentions. Synthetic biology is a dual-use technology; it can be used for good goals or misused and cause harm. Misusage of the techniques and GMO's could result, among other things, in bioweapons and with the threshold for practicing biology getting lower and lower it is creating an unprecedented security problem (Schmidt, 2008). More and more people will have the possibility to engineer biology and without proper regulatory oversight these socalled biohackers can create potential hazards. A list of selected reading about security and possible interventions can be found here, here and here. 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) .

Intellectual property

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.

Playing God issue

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.

Ethical issues in Heavy metal scavengers with a vertical gasdrive


It is important to consider ethical issues when introducing a new application, especially when genetic modified organisms are involved. In our survey we included an essay question in which the respondents were asked to give their opinion on ethical isues surrouding our project. We wanted to approach the Delphi method for brainstorming in which participant can speak freely and this will open up the discussion.We used the four ethical issues as described by (Bhutkar, A2005) as a guideline. From these answers, and also from the rest of the survey, it appeared that people are most concerend about the safety for the environment and human health.


Important issues that should be considerend and solved before the bouyant heavy metal scavengers can be used in application are the possible danger for the natural bacterial population, antibiotic resistance that could spread, the concentrated amounts of a heavy metal, unwanted side effects. Most of these concerns are only applicable when the bacteria end up in the natural environment. This is obviously something that should be prevented in order to keep the system controllable. Keeping the bacteria in a closed water cleaning facility is a controlable environment, however, there is the risk in traditional water cleaning facilities of overflowing. So since there is still a small risk of bacteria ending up in the natural environment this should be considered. If bacteria end up in the natural environment many risks are present. One of the most mentioned concerns is the transfer of genes from the GMO to another organism. There is no evidence that gene transfer can happen between two different organisms, however, it is possible between two bacteria of the same strain. It does not happen often, it only happens in a stressful environment (Mindlin, SZ, et al.2002, ), (Stephenson, JR, et al.1996) . If a GMO end up in a natural environment it could be very stressful so it is possible that genes are transferred. To prevent this it would be best if the bacterium cannot transfer genes and dies. One way to achieve this is implementing a death-gene. This gene start apoptosis and can be transcribed with a delay. So the bacterium can do its job first and after a certain time or at a certain set-of the death-gene starts apoptosis. In this way the GMO is controllable and the possible unwanted side-effects of the GMO in a natural environment or effect because of a mutation are also decreased. Another safety issue mentioned in the survey is the escape of a antibiotic resistant strain that can spread this resistant among other bacteria. To overcome this risk other selection mechanisms besides antibiotics should be used like a gene that can make glucose out of lactose. Another concern has to do with the accumulation of toxic metals. People are afraid that this high concentration of metals can poison other organisms that eat the bacterium or a bacterium with the heavy metal stays behind. In order to make sure that a bacterium that accumulates metals also floats to the surface a feedback mechanism between the accumulation device and the gas vesicle devise could be made. Yet another concern is the removal of the bacteria and the heavy metals. Some people presume that it is very costly to remove the bacteria from the water cleaning facilitation and that it would be very difficult to remove the heavy metals. The removal of the bacteria does not have to be very expensive. It can be done by using a kind of a sieve. The metals can be removed by destruction of the cells. In case of arsenic antimone can be added and the arsenide importer will export all arsenide from the cell. Another concern is how do you know if the GMOs remove enough or even all of the particular heavy metal from the water or sludge? It can be estimated how much of this particular heavy metal a bacterium can take up and a overload of bacteria should be added so you know for sure that all of that particular heavy metal is removed. Another problem is what if the amount of the heavy metal is lower than expected and therefor not enough metal is accumulated to float? In this case the death gene should make sure that after a certain amount of time or at a certain signal the bacterium starts apoptosis. There is a possibility that the bacteria do not only take up the selected heavy metal. Bacteria could take up other metals as well, like copper and zinc. These metals do no harm in the drinking water, they are even useful for humans. However the heavy metals would compete with the copper and zinc for the accumulation proteins so most copper and zinc would be removed. Another way to prevent this from happening is over saturating the bacteria with these other metals before letting them clean the water.

Security risk

Security risks are always present. If the concentrated amounts of heavy metal fall into the wrong hands it could be misused. This risk is minimal since water cleaning facilities are not open for the public and the changes are bigger, and the result more catastrophic, if someone puts toxics in the drinking water.

Playing God issue

Most people do not find modifying bacteria as itself morally incorrect. From our survey it appeared that most people do not find it a problem if these modified bacteria are used in a water or sludge cleaning application.

Intellectual property

No other concerns are of interest in this project apart from the basic question can DNA be patented. Most people find this morally incorrect, however, patenting a system or idea which uses modified bacteria should be possible in order to keep up development.