Team:UGent/Ethics/Prof dr Tom Desmet


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Prof. dr. Tom Desmet

Tom Desmet studied Medicine and Biochemistry at Ghent University, where he obtained his Ph.D. in 2005. His main interests are the specificity and mechanism of glycoside hydrolases. Tom Desmet is coordinator of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The goal of this research project is the development of biocatalytic processes for the glycosylation of small organic molecules such as flavonoids, alkaloids and steroids in order to improve both the physicochemical and biological properties of these molecules. Tom Desmet is Associate Professor for Biocatalysis and Enzyme Engineering at the University of Ghent and teaches Biocatalysis and Enzyme Technology.

There are a lot of different perspectives of the concept of synthetic biology. Prof Desmet is a big proponent of this field of science and according to him; synthetic biology is creating life from scratch: you put some bricks into a vesicle in order to create a functional unit. It does not matter whether you call creating a new entity (such as a microorganism) creating new life or creating a biological machine. It depends on the ability of the new entity to reproduce. In nature, such a new entity probably will not survive, due to competition with other bacteria. Among people, ‘life’ still is seen as something magical, but in fact life is just a cell, that follows the rules of thermodynamics. Knowing that, it’s certainly acceptable to create life.

Prof. Desmet is not a big fan of patents and is of the opinion that genes or anything produced by nature should not be patented. Patents are a necessary evil, but it is important you want one for the right reasons. For example when a company has put a lot of thinking and effort into optimizing the process that combines all the bricks into a functional unit, it is understandable it wants recognition for its achievements.

In history, a lot went wrong communication wise. And once you have made mistakes, it is very difficult to fix them. Therefore it is very important to provide a good explanation to the general public. When microorganisms are manipulated in a confined environment, it is easier to gain the general public’s acceptance. Anyhow, Tom Desmet does not have any problems with GMOs, whether they are manipulated in a confined environment or they are released in nature.

What about morality and creating new entities without knowing the long term consequences? According to Prof. Desmet, this is morally justified because it happens all the time in nature: new variants of species are continuously created. In nature the law of ‘survival of the fittest’ applies, synthetic biologists just think in a more directed way before creating a new variant. In this respect, synthetic biology can actually be seen as a more clever variant of natural selection.

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