Synthetic biology raises bioethical questions

21 May 2010

Like nanotechnology and gene transfer technology before it, the creation of the first viable cell with a synthetic genome has not only raised obvious ethical issues about scientists “playing God” but has other bioethical repercussions; looking at humanity’s relationship to nature as well as the changing scale between living and nonliving.

“Synthetic biology certainly raises deep philosophical and moral questions about the human relationship to nature,” says Gregory Kaebnick, a scholar with bioethics research institution The Hastings Center, who is managing a project examining moral issues in synthetic biology.

“It’s not clear what the answers to those questions are. If by ‘nature’ we mean the world around us, more or less as we found it, we may well decide that synthetic biology does not really change the human relationship to nature – and may even help us preserve what is left of it.”

“We have come up against similar problems in other domains – most notably, in work on nanotechnology and gene transfer technology – but synthetic biology poses them especially sharply and pressingly,” said Thomas H Murray, president of The Hastings Center and the project’s principal investigator.

Art world also concerned

Not only research and science institutes but also the world of art is concerned with examining the implications and impact of the first synthetic cell on society. James King, an independent British designer whose work is displayed in MOMA New York, is looking at how living cell and non-living cells differ from each other and how the future of medicine may not be a cure in the traditional sense but rather the replication of artificial cells in the human body where needed.

King’s short film looks at the possibility of a “cellularity scale” that could stratify any organism, natural or man made, according to a continuum of how “alive” it is.

King works closely with researchers in synthetic biology and has collaborated with Cambridge University students and faculty, including a team of undergraduates who won the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, an annual synthetic biology contest held at MIT.

Speaking to the BBC, John Haas, of the National Catholic Bioethics Centre said: “I don’t think people appreciate the power of this revolution. I don’t think the scientists are behaving unethically but this is potentially so powerful we have to think now how we are going to realise the benefits before exposing ourselves to the risk.”

By Marie Boran

Photo: Courtesy of Flickr user ynse under Creative Commons licence