Synthetic ethics

Talking of new topics emerging , synthetic biology seems to be popping up all over the place these days. OK, it’s not exactly new any more but I keep seeing announcements from quasi-official bodies indicating an interest in looking at the ethics of, public interest in, or broader implications of synthetic biology. When the froth rises to the top it suggests there’s a lot brewing down below.
I went to a very interesting talk a few months back given by Thomas Murray president of the Hastings Center, which has an ongoing investigation into ethical issues in synthetic biology. He was invited over here to give the _”Nuffield Council on Bioethics Public Lecture 2009″: and his talk was titled “New genetic recipes: are we cooking up trouble with synthetic biology?” A video of the lecture is available.
Dr Murray explained that ethics begin with facts, so he gave us a few definitions of synthetic biology. Essentially it entails the application of engineering principles to the fundamental components of biology. He also reminded us that as yet synthetic biology is mostly aspirational. Those in the field hope that they can use it for biological production, drug creation or bioremediation, but it’s still a hope.
Drawing on a recent review in Bioessays Dr Murray highlighted three major strains of synthetic biology, each of which may raise different ethical issues:

  • protocell creation
  • DNA-based device construction
  • genome-driven cell engineering

He also noted that with its mix of biology and engineering, synthetic biology brings together two fields with different attitudes to ethical issues. He suggested that biologists are more engaged in ethical debates about the consequences of their research than are engineers. This point was disputed by a representative of the Royal Academy of Engineering who was in the audience (oops!), who maintained that ethics are now part of engineers’ training, but I’m inclined to think that Dr Murray had a point.
He then looked at the very different approaches taken in the UK and the USA to the debates about a) GMOs and b) stem cells. In examining these differences he teased out the idea that some of our beliefs are based around “interests” (financial, personal, family) and some are based around “identities” (deepseated beliefs such as religion or politics). If a position is based on interest then there can be trade-offs and compromises and it is acceptable for there to be public and commercial interests. If a position is based on identity then there are no compromises and the two sides of an issue are probably mutually unintelligible. That certainly sounded like a familiar situation – just think of debates about the use of animals or hybrid embryos in research. Dr Murray thinks that this way of looking at bioethical debates could prove useful.
He talked a little of the potential benefits and risks of synthetic biology. I liked his term bio-errorism (sic). He dissected the precautionary principle (when in doubt, pause) and contrasted it with the pro-actionary principle (when in doubt, go ahead), asking “Who bears the burden of uncertainty?”.
Finally, Dr Murray commented that synthetic biology may be seen as a continuum with genetic engineering, and it may lead us to re-examine our ethical approach to genetic engineering. If we feel that synthetic biology has an impact on how we see ourselves we may treat it as an “identity” issue. He suggested that the debate needs compelling narratives of synthetic biology scenarios as well as philosophical arguments.
The lecture didn’t provide any answers, but it did provoke a good deal of interesting thoughts.
Here is my evidence of the synthetic biology froth:

  • Two Research Councils, BBSRC and EPSRC, have set up a steering group of independent members to “advise them on how to gauge and understand the public’s perceptions, aspirations and concerns around synthetic biology”.
  • The Royal Society have established a Synthetic Biology Policy Coordination Group which aims to “track and stimulate policy activities and processes to encourage the responsible and responsive development of synthetic biology”.
  • The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) and the

Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) are designing a series of workshops that will engage an interdisciplinary cross-departmental group of academics who are interested in developing new research ideas in synthetic biology.

  • Back in May Nature ran a story about the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College, London, highlighting the fact that social scientists will be a key part of the Centre.
  • Also in May the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) report looked at practical, regulatory and ethical issues in synthetic biology
  • The RAE later issued another report that gauged public attitudes to the field.
  • Meanwhile, in Germany, a joint policy paper from the DFG and the Leopoldina academy looks at safety and ethical issues raised by synthetic biology.
  • I just noticed that there has been a special issue of EMBO Reports on this topic, in their Science & Society section.

Finally, a couple of books:

– a comprehensive overview on relevant societal issues of synthetic biology
p.s. see also Pamela Ronald’s post on genetic engineering.

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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