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Ethics in synthetic biology

It is not surprising that synthetic biology, the science which adapts and designs living organisms with myriad and undefined applications, has a broad ethical dimension. An ethical dimension … ethical questions … ethics … what on earth? Weren’t we talking exact science here?

Ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do. Ethics is about trying to give answers to questions about the proper way to act or react in certain situations. Note that the ethical course of action is not dependent on social conventions, religious beliefs or the law! As synthetic biology is a new, rapidly expanding scientific field with many anticipated applications and a high impact on society, it is important to address the associated social and ethical issues right from the start of its development. Researchers in synthetic biology have been really keen on doing so as to avoid problems with public perception experienced in other fields. As an iGEM team with a heart for synthetic biology, we want to carry on this tradition and devote some time and space on this wiki to social and ethical implications of this field of research.

The first question that springs to mind when considering new technologies is about the still unknown, potentially harmful consequences. A synthetic organism may have negative effects on the environment or human beings. Such concerns fall under biosafety. Is it acceptable to create something which we do not know the long-term consequences of? Apart from biosafety, synthetic biology raises also biosecurity concerns, as products of synthetic biology could potentially be used for acts of bioterrorism.

One of the goals of synthetic biology is the creation of new organisms with functions that are not found in nature. Also the creation of minimal organisms from the ground up is an application of synthetic biology. Is the creation of novel entities like microorganisms creating life or merely building a biological machine? Is creating life acceptable? Could this change our view on the concept of life or alter our relationship with other living creatures?

One of the keystones of synthetic biology is the access to an ever growing, open library of standard parts which can be used to create new systems. This does not seem reconcilable with intellectual property rights. Some even propose to ban patents completely in synthetic biology.

It is clear that synthetic biology has an impact on society as a whole. Clear communication with the public is important to save synthetic biology from the same fate as GMOs (genetically modified organisms). But how should we proceed in this communication? How to steer public perception away from the irrational disgust that surrounds genetic manipulation and GMOs? Can the solution be found in more education, more marketing or something else altogether?

We talked about these burning questions with several ethicists and scientists. Each of them was able to shed some new light on certain aspects. By clicking on their photo you can discover what they had to say about the concerns mentioned above. With their varying opinions in the back of our mind, we formulated a viewpoint of our own on these social and ethical issues and introduce a new tool for communicating synthetic biology to the broad public.

What we take home

It is clear that synthetic biology will lead to tons of new applications in the near future and that it is impossible to foresee all the long-term consequences. Does this mean we should act out of a precautionary principle and not proceed at all? No! We opt, just like the professionals we interviewed, for a more proactionary approach and hope Europe will soon follow this philosophy. We do not think progress should be halted by worrying about unforeseeable consequences. The focus should not be on eliminating all risks, as zero-risk is utopian (cfr. Prof. Wim Soetaert). Note that we absolutely agree that foreseeable consequences should be thoroughly evaluated and that a cost-benefit analysis should be made (cfr. Prof. Filip Buekens).

On the topic of intellectual property rights, it would be favourable for the development of synthetic biology to release the building blocks to open source, but to permit patents on finished products (cfr. Prof. Geert De Jaeger). In this way development of new applications will not be hindered and the incentive to invest will not disappear.

In regards to creating life, we have not yet made up our mind. Some of us are of the opinion that you can call what Craig Venter did, putting a synthetic genome in a non-viable empty vesicle, creating life. Others share the opinion of Prof. De Jaeger and believe that in order to create life, you should also synthesize the vesicle from scratch. We do agree, however, that engineering existing cells, for example adding foreign or synthetic genes, cannot be seen as creating life.

Starting now, we should inform and educate the general public about synthetic biology and the advantages that come with it, in order to prevent an irrational, sentimental aversion (cfr. GMOs). What stood out to us when discussing this topic with Prof. Buekens was the importance of semantics. Today many words associated with genetic engineering evoke rather negative emotions as a result of the anti-campaign against GMOs. This is why we created a lexicon for communicating synthetic biology to the broad public.

The Synbio Lexicon - a new tool for communicating synthetic biology

We found that there is a deep rooted, irrational disgust among a large part of the general public for things associated with genetic engineering. Several campaigns against the use of GMOs have severely damaged the image of scientific disciplines that make use of the adaptation of genes of living organisms. That’s why it’s very important to use a (new) vocabulary that does not evoke these negative feelings when communicating with the public. After all, humans are sentimental beings and education alone will not bring us a step closer to general acceptance if negative emotions keep having the upper hand.

Have you too noticed that people tend to lose their focus fairly quickly and drift elsewhere with their mind when you are talking about your research? Equally important as a neutrally loaded vocabulary is an easy accessible one that keeps people’s attention on the subject.

We established a lexicon that contains a collection of terms, words, sentences, that may evoke negative sentiments or make people yawn and proposed a more neutral, accessible alternative.


Newson, A.J. Current Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology: Where Should We Go from Here? Accountability in Research-Policies and Quality Assurance 18, 181-193 (2011).
Parens, E. et al. (2009) Ethical issues in synthetic biology. (read 23/08/13)
Schmidt, M. A priority paper for the societal and ethical aspects of synthetic biology. Systems and Synthetic Biology 3, 3-7 (2009)
Sommerville, M. (2007) Patenting life. (read 23/08/13)
Velasquez, M. et al. (2010) What is Ethics? (read 23/08/13)

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