Team:UGent/Ethics/Prof dr Els Van Damme


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Prof. dr. Els Van Damme

Els Van Damme is professor at the Department Molecular Biotechnology at the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering. She heads the research group Biochemistry and Glycobiology. Her research involves a multidisciplinary study of defense-related plant proteins with emphasis on carbohydrate-binding proteins (lectins) and other plant proteins that are capable of interacting with endogenous or foreign (macro)molecules.

Prof. Van Damme considers synthetic biology as a subdivision of biotechnology. She certainly favors this field of science, as long as microorganisms are being used for positive goals and as long as the outcome is being monitored. The same applies to biotechnology in general. For example, it would be wrong to manipulate bacteria with the aim of producing toxins for humans.

You will never know for sure what will happen in the long term, but as long as microorganisms are being manipulated in a confined environment, there should be no problem. Of course, you cannot release the modified organisms into nature just like that, but opposing every kind of modification in a confined environment is almost the same as saying ‘no’ to science in general.

In comparison to plant breeding, synthetic biologists (and biotechnologists in general) were asked much more questions. When crossing two plant varieties/species, no one knows what exactly the outcome will be, let alone what will be the long term consequences (such as e.g. the appearance of allergies to new food products). So why is it that biotechnologists are closely kept an eye on whereas plant breeders can go their own way?

As far as patents are concerned, prof. Van Damme feels that nature cannot be patented, the application on the other hand can. For example, you cannot patent a strain of Escherichia coli, but it is ok to patent a newly invented method using this strain.

Prof. Els Van Damme envisages that scientists themselves should provide proper education and clear information to the general public, rather than journalists and anti-movement parties.

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