Synthetic biology

The forward cast shadow of the designer baby

Because of all the possibilities it provides to tamper with life synthetic biology is, inherently, a technology with strong ethical connotations. Philosophers endeavour to elucidate the relevant arguments and bring parties closer together.

Synthetic biology goes just one step further than traditional biotechnology. Whilst the latter cuts and pastes with existing genetic information the former attempts to put together that same information virtually atom by atom. In that way, scientists have succeeded in replicating the genome of a type of yeast and one does not need to be clairvoyant to guess that such technology will gradually move closer to people. It is therefore best to contemplate all the ethical consequences of such matters before they materialize.
image“The subject is bubbling under the surface everywhere”, Dr. Ibo van de Poel comments. “The European Commission has, for example, already approached an ethical committee for advice. From our area of expertise we are also trying to contribute. We do that by charting out all the ethical questions and comparing them with existing rulings both in the form of legislation and informal agreements. If we detect discrepancies then we bring that to the attention of stakeholders such as governments and environmental organizations. We do not express our own opinions on matters.”
The ethical problems surrounding synthetic biology may be divided into various categories. One may, for instance, think of all the safety questions: what are the chances of synthetic biological products causing damage to the environment? If such products were furthermore able to multiply that would certainly become an acute problem. Even if scientists carefully observe all the rules and regulations there is still always the risk that such technology could get into the hands of people who are consciously out to wreak havoc. As Van de Poel says: “This is a difficult subject because you really only know about the consequences when something has happened and that can sometimes be too late.”
Other kinds of questions that loom up are those relating to intellectual property. For instance, can you apply for a patent for a substance composed from a synthetic organism and what happens if another organism is able to produce the same substance? Then there is the matter of the distribution between northern and southern regions. Also in the field of biotechnology there is the debate about western companies which, with their patents on genetically modified crops, are able to put farmers in poorer regions at a disadvantage.
Ultimately, though, the category of questions that really catch people’s imaginations are those that have to do with “tampering” with people. In its most extreme form, one may think of the idea of putting together a “designer baby”, gene by gene, with the parents dictating exactly which genetic characteristics they want to “order”. Despite the fact that this particular scenario will definitely be relegated to the spheres of science fiction for at least a few more decades (and may never become a reality), it does play a prominent part in the debate in which ideological and religious arguments also come very much to the fore.
“It is therefore essential to make a detailed analysis of the public debate and take all the opinions very seriously”, Van de Poel believes. “Opposition to intervention with living organisms on religious grounds is just as deserving of attention as all the reasons put forward by synthetic biologists to do the reverse. It is the task of philosophers to bring clarity to the debate and, where possible, narrow the gap.”