Team:UGent/Ethics/Prof dr ir Wim Soetaert


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Prof. dr. ir. Wim Soetaert

Wim Soetaert is a chemical and biochemical engineer who heads the Centre of Expertise for Industrial Biotechnology and Biocatalysis at the University of Ghent, Faculty of BioScience Engineering. His research group is active in the development of fermentative and biocatalytic production processes. Prof. Soetaert received a PhD in bioengineering from Ghent University. He worked as a research director in Germany and France, for the sugar group Pfeifer & Langen and the wheat processing company Chamtor.

He is the founder and chairman of Ghent Bio-Energy Valley, a public-private partnership to promote the development of biobased activities in the Ghent area. Soetaert is also the director of the Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant, an open innovation pilot plant for biobased products and processes based in Ghent.

Prof. Soetaert is of the opinion that synthetic biology is a field of science parallel to that of the industrial biotechnology, but synthetic biology goes that little further. It is a discipline that happens here and now and is the most natural thing in the world, as a manner of speaking. People have already been manipulating horses and cows for a certain amount of time, now they just move three steps further. The question is: “Are you in or not?” Creating a new entity (such as a micro-organism) can be seen as creating a biological machine, rather than ‘creating life’. Because what ís life? The public’s opinions on that are usually based on a gut feeling and not a rational given.

You don’t know the long term effects when creating something new, but does this mean you should not do it? Most certainly not! If cavemen had asked themselves: “Making fire, it might be dangerous, is this morally justified?”, we would still be living in caves. Searching for zero risk is nonsense and it does not even exist, but of course you have to be responsible and you should not play with fire. When we asked prof. Soetaert the following question: is it morally justified to create something new without knowing the long-term consequences? he answered: “What a badly phrased question!” “Morality” is often a misused word according to Wim Soetaert. The way we interpret the meaning of morality is related to the behaviour of our species. People are cooperative workers, rather than individual workers. The individuality and evolution of a species determine its moral demeanor. In fact, human morality has essentially a genetic basis.

The problem with GMOs has not really reached Soetaert’s area of expertise. As long as GMOs are used in a fermenter in so-called “contained use” and are not being released in nature, organizations such as Greenpeace will not utter objections. Greenpeace is basically against the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms in nature, Prof. Soetaert on the other hand does not agree on this matter.

A good synthetic biologist should not blaze around that he or she is ‘creating life’. This only creates fear among the general public and that is why Prof. Soetaert advocates “Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés.” In order to live happily, live hidden!

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