Team:KU Leuven/Human Practices/Ethics/Debate



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Public judgement & common sense


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We were in the news!

The debate is part of our new developed approach, which is bottom-up structured.
The aim of the debate was to focus on ethical issues surrounding synthetic biology in a way which is accessible to students, academics, but also non-scientists.

Debate poster

The poster of our debate.

We organized a debate in which four speakers were invited with different backgrounds to debate the ethical concerns surrounding synthetic biology. The panel members were: René Custer, regulatory affairs manager at the VIB (Flemish institute for biotechnology). Prof. Johan De Tavernier, a bio-ethicist from the faculty of theology of the KU Leuven. Dr. ir. Anneleen Vandeplas who is an economist working for the European Commission specializing in agriculture. And lastly dr. ir. Hermes Sanctorum, member of parliament for Groen, which is a Belgian green political party that has sustainable development and ecology as a pillar of its program. The debate was moderated by Ben Vanheukelom, journalist from the VRT radio news (Flemish Radio and Television Broadcasting Organization) and in the auditorium around 200 people with a interest in the topic were present. The aim of the debate was to focus on the ethical issues surrounding synthetic biology in a way which is accessible to students, academics, but also non-scientists. Our iGEM team provided 6 specific statements that were used as a starting point for the discussion. Below the summary of the discussion per topic is summarized.

The First question: How do the panel members evaluate our project? It was considered an interesting project that provides an innovative way helping to solve the concern of feeding in a growing world population with a limited amount of space. It is an ecologically responsible way to boost the production of crops per Ha, though Hermes Sanctorum mentioned that the effects on the environment from implementing this genetically engineered machine should be well studied and also the opinion of the society has to be respected.
Regarding the question if this project is strictly speaking an example of synthetic biology, René Custers responded that synthetic biology is a rather undefined term. In this project rather ‘traditional’ genetic engineering is used. The modeling aspect and the use of multiple heterologous genes resulting in a ‘new’ bacteria however make this project a possible application of synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology can be used to design organisms capable of making products in a very efficient way, although at the moment it is hard to foresee all the possible applications. Hermes Sanctorum thinks it is important that we do not create the image that synthetic biology is the solution to all our problems. Rather it is just a next step in solving these problems. If we look at the promises made at the start of genetic engineering we can see that many of those have yet to be achieved, for example providing the solution against food scarcity in the world.
The consumer also has to see the advantage from introducing this technology into the field. This might be accomplished if we look at the fact that people are willing to pay extra money for bio-products. And introducing E. coligy might reduce the use of pesticides and increase crop yield thus fulfilling the demand for ecological agriculture by the consumer and meanwhile reducing the price. This effect should easily be felt by consumers mentioned Anneleen Vandeplas, for example when we look at the use of genetically engineered crops in America, one can see that the profit from using this crops is equally divided between farmer, consumer and the biotech company.

dr. ir. Anneleen Vandeplas

Dr. ir. Anneleen Vandeplas.

There is always risk involved with the introduction of new technologies. A risk analysis is required, in which we have to look at the risk and multiply it with the damage done. Another factor is the timeframe in which this damage will last. The Cartagena protocol is a protocol for genetically engineered organisms that defines that the risk has to be almost zero, making it hard for new technologies to be introduced in Europe. This also makes it difficult for small companies to invest in these technologies leaving only big multinationals to get past this testing phase. Part of the synthetic biology will fall under the regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). René Custer said that on the other hand when new parts are made that do not currently exist in nature performing a risk analysis will be a lot harder. For instance when making proteins consisting of amino acids not residing in nature or creating new organisms that replicate themselves.
We can also look at the methods used in agriculture and cattle-breeding in the past where such a debate was never held before the technology was introduced. Some examples are the ‘Belgian blue’, irradiation of crops and the selection of ‘meat chickens’. Also in chemical industry thousands of non-natural compounds are produced and the increased prevalence of certain cancers is associated with these chemicals. At this instant a total restriction of synthetic biology is not necessary. We should be vigilant however when new applications are developed that history does not repeat itself.
Anneleen Vandeplas also mentioned that the opinion of the consumer also seems to be just one reason against the introduction on the market of GMO’s. Much more important is the fact that this technology is better developed in America and that Europe protects its own market by prohibiting import of these cheaper modified crops.

Synthetic biology might, in the wrong hands, lead to the development of weapons. Yet knowledge of the subject is required as is also the case with nuclear or chemical weaponry. In the case of synthetic biology, it might even be easier if one wishes to do harm to use a much simpler different method. Right now when submitting a research proposal the dual-use agreement is obligatory and also questions have to be answered regarding the purpose of the project and its potential misuse.

Opening the box of Pandora is not seen as a good concept. Every innovation can be seen as a box of Pandora as there is always a risk associated with them. To keep the box closed for this reason would halt innovation. An extra ethical question might arise according to Johan De Tavernier if this technique shifts from bacteria to higher animals. Then the integrity of the animal itself becomes a factor. Then a cost-benefit analysis has to be done where the suffering of the animal is added to the equation before the project is started. The goal has to justify the means as it were.

Panelmembers and moderator

Our panel members and our moderator.

Patents lead to a concentration of power and result in social inequality. The opinions were divided among our panel members. On the one hand, patents are needed for investments in research and development and innovation although it is not proven that there is more research and development after implementation. It is certainly necessary to convert the new invention into a product and bring it on the market. On the other hand, it blocks access to knowledge and there is a new trend of acquiring patents by looking for people who might have breached this patent in order to acquire a reimbursement.
Next to the patent system, one can also use the open-source system. In this system all the information is freely available and anyone can make use of this information without consent of the publisher. An interesting new development for the future is a hybrid form between the two systems. A number of examples already exists: In the medical applications an exception of the patent for third world countries is made to improve the availability. Another example is the addition of an exception to a patent for countries where the genetic material of the developed product is coming from.

Is dual use a valid reason to halt synthetic biology?

There are risks associated with synthetic biology. Is dual use a valid reason as every advancement in technology also tends to increase its potential for destruction? Shouldn’t we look at the time it takes to repair when something goes wrong? For instance in case of a nuclear disaster it will take thousands of years to revert to its normal state. Influencing a ecosystem might also change it for many generations.
These risks are hard to assess for synthetic biology. A case to case view is necessary. Indeed time could be an extra factor to assess the risk of a project. If new life is formed that is very dangerous but it dies in an instant out of the test tube, one is more inclined to allow this project then if these life forms would survive longer. Johan De Tavernier suggests that the four criteria of plagiarism of the KU Leuven could be used to assess the risk: seriousness, scale, grade and impact.

Open source

Open source makes it possible for scientists to build upon previous research, but it might also make it easier accessible for malicious applications.
Much like open source, the patent system requires the inventor to put the data online for anyone to read. If one were to use this data, consent of the patent holder is required. The information is in both systems freely accessible if one wishes to use it with bad intent. Another possibility is to keep it entirely secret, an example of this is the recipe of coca-cola.

The difference between chemistry, nanobiology and synthetic biology

When we look at the risk analysis the difference between chemistry, nanobiology and synthetic biology is that synthetic biology creates organism that replicate themselves which is harder to control if they would escape their predetermined environment.
The organisms are capable of replicating but will be made dependant of a certain compound that is not found outside their habitat. Thus if they escape this they will not be able to survive.

People with malicious beliefs

In the scientific world there are people with a different points of view: cloning Neandterthalers, or releasing this new life in the environment on purpose.
In an organization working on synthetic biology systems are present to guide the projects, keep an eye on the development. The institution also has to select the right people, educate them and give them a sense of social responsibility.

Question from the public

A question from the public.

Governmental control

Few members of parliament are informed in the subject of synthetic biology. Is it sound to let them make decisions concerning this topic?
The members of parliament are a representation of the population in Belgium. If we look at the population more than 80% does not know what synthetic biology means. To resolve this problem the parliament invites scientists to inform them about the subject.

Responsibility after disasters

If this iGEM team finds an industrial partner to bring this bacteria on the market and after a while a problem arises. Who is responsible for the damage caused? The team, the company...?
Normally the company who brings the product on the market will be held responsible. There is a European regulation concerning environmental liability.

After these questions all those present at the debate were invited to the reception to further discuss the topic and the symposium in smaller groups with some drinks (beer sponsored by AB-Inbev Belgium) and a bite.
We would like to thank our panel members for enabling us to hold this interesting debate and our moderator Ben Vanheukelom for guiding the conversation. We would also like to thank all the interested people present at the debate and also the iGEM team of UGent for attending the debate.