Team:UGent/Ethics/Prof dr Geert De Jaeger


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Prof. dr. Geert De Jaeger

Geert De Jaeger is professor at the University of Ghent and teaches Plant Biotechnology and Biotechnology and Society. He is Deputy Department Director of the Department of Plant System Biology at the VIB (Flemish Institute for Biotechnology) in Ghent. His lab focusses on the study of interactomics in plants. Their long term goal is to map the gene networks involved in cell proliferation by system wide interactomic approaches such as protein and chromatin complex isolation.

‘Synthetic biology’ is not well-defined and it is not very clear which topics pertain to this branch of science. ‘The synthesis of living systems’ is the narrow definition of synthetic biology. It all started with Craig Venter, who transferred a synthetic chromosome from one mycoplasma to another, and thereby claimed to have created life. This in fact wasn’t true, because properties were transferred into an already existing cell. More broadly the term includes the creation of functional biobricks which can be used to alter the features of a living creature. But then what is the difference with genetic engineering? Part of synthetic biology probably can be seen as a more sophisticated form of genetic engineering.

Creating such a new entity (e.g. a microorganism) is neither creating life, nor creating a biological machine. You don’t create life, because you alter an already existing cell. Making a machine would be making a new entity from scratch with building blocks that do something useful for humans. Nevertheless, prof. De Jaeger thinks a machine is to a certain extent a nice metaphor for life, and helps to make difficult matters more understandable, but you cannot equalize life to a machine because living organisms in nature are not made with a purpose or based on a plan.

What about the not well-known long term consequences? In deciding whether or not you should execute a project, it is important to do a cost-benefit analysis. If the benefits outweigh the costs, it is ok to proceed. However, I think it will not be easy to get certain products on the market. Our society in Europe is built on a strongly forced precautionary principle. Even the slightest suspicion there might be any danger is enough reason to call off the project.

To discuss the purpose and the utility of patents, it is important to make a distinction between creating new software and making new entities in the lab. Much higher costs are associated with the latter. Wanting to gain credit for something you created, having put a lot of resources in it, is an automatic reflex. If society would abolish patents, there could rise a tendency to stop investing in such projects as they are no longer lucrative. However, it is an interesting view to prohibit patents in synthetic biology in order to stimulate the development of new systems. That is why a probable solution could be to release the building blocks to open source, but to permit patents on finished products. Investors would still invest and development will not be counteracted.

Classical plant breeding works with a kind of similar system. In this branch, only breeding rights can be obtained. These are rights granted to the breeder of a new plant variety that give the breeder exclusive control over the commercialisation of his product for thirty years. However, other breeders have the freedom to access the new variety and use it in their own breeding programs. When after a certain amount of time another breeder creates a new variety out of the previously mentioned one, he on his turn can obtain exclusive breeding rights. This is not the case with patents, where the owner of the patent has control both over commercialisation and licensing to other parties for further developments and this over 20 years.

Prof. De Jaeger also explained to us that the poor acceptance of GMOs is due to a combination of circumstances and that not only bad communication to the public is to blame. People had already lost their confidence in the food industry (because of the mad cow disease) when GMOs were introduced for the first time. This bad atmosphere was sparked by prominent NGOs with a lot of political power. This fueled the anti-campaign in the media. On top of that there were also scientists who expressed their suspicion. These are the main reasons for the negative reception of GMOs by the general public. What could we do to avoid going down the same road with synthetic biology? A clear communication about the benefits for consumers/patients is priority. Education is also very important. Clear facts should be taught, not science fiction.

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