Team:INSA Toulouse/contenu/human practice/ethical aspects/bacterial dissemination



Ethical Aspects

What are the risks for nature?

In the sixth part of his “Discours de la méthode”, Descartes wrote that humans tend to be “master and owner of Nature”. In this respect, we can say that science, globally, is going to lead us faster to this objective. Progress in medicine and pharmacology permitted us to extend life duration, to manage our environment and also to use Nature as a warehouse for helping us to become “better and stronger”. However, if Science pursues the Cartesian objectives, is this really reachable? Here comes the question of the place that Synthetic Biology takes in this Cartesian pursuit.

In Synthetic Biology, it is important to understand that even if all complex mechanisms which control life are not totally understood, Man is able to modify the deeper part of living forms (DNA), to control it and modify the abilities and capacities of living forms. That could be an issue, indeed, there is still a probability that we haven’t thought about a crucial point, which could lead to a complete loss of control. Here comes as example of the problem of dissemination. Even if we are the most precautious, and if all the rules to avoid dissemination are respected, can we still say that what we do is risks-free ? In our own case, Nature itself doesn’t need to know how to calculate in a binary way to improve itself and bacteria are not composed of any potentially dangerous biobricks. Also we can reasonably think that even if dissemination is possible, there will be no real damages or injuries if E. calculus escapes the lab.

However, we have to put things on perspectives. We know very well from our everyday experience in the lab that modified organisms are in most of the case weaker than common bacteria when exposed to the outside, and if you put in presence a genetically modified and a non-modified organism, the modification-free organism will supplant the modified ones because of several chromosome deletions and bigger fragility of them. Nevertheless, the inherent risks of this technology, such as horizontal DNA transfert, must be as low as possible. That is why synthetic biologists need to develop strategies and tools to have an almost perfect security. The first strategy is the biological physical or chemical confinement. It is easily achieved for microorganisms but problematic for plants and animals. A second security strategy could be a “suicidal system”. In the case of modification that cells escaping their confinement could meet in the outside environment (for example the absence of synthetic inhibitor) a part of the synthetic pathway would force those cells to produce an endotoxin, leading to their death. Another strategy could be to increase the orthogonality between natural organisms and synthetic ones. One present orientation is the development of xenoDNA, i.e. a complete artificial enzymatic replication machinery based on unnatural nucleotides never found in natural environment.

To summarize, although “zero risk” is unreachable (like in every field that implicate notion of risk by the way), putative problems concerning dissemination of living modified organism have robust existing or in development solutions. However, in order to go further, we have to question the following: many team projects directly rely on interactions between plants, or human body and modified organisms. Many of these projects are very interesting and could help a lots of people on our planet. Since necessary studies are not accomplished yet, they are somehow stuck in a “prototype state”, because fear of dissemination and propagation exist. How will we deal with that in the future? How could be mankind ready, in a close future, to trust science enough to leave fears and accept modified organisms into everyday life? Which robust answers have synthetic biologists to give to society for a well acceptation of this field?

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