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The need for answers

Regarding all these ethical concerns and issues of human practice, there seems to be an urgent need for answers and regulations. Practical examples from the past have shown that existing regulations do not provide the answers we are looking for. We illustrate this in the following sections, to conclude with the role of the society in contrast to the scientific community and the synergy that can lead to a socially accepted practice of synthetic biology.


The lottery of changing genes

James Watson warned the world about the dangers of genetic engineering. There is a serious concern that some of these artificially recombinant DNA molecules could prove to be biologically hazardous. Genetically engineered organisms are mostly micro-organisms, what means there are enormous risks because these creatures can migrate and mutate. The science of genetic engineering is still very young, so if we are changing genes, this is a rather imprecise operation. Most techniques are random processes, scientists aren’t fully in control (yet) of where a gene will enter the genome. This can cause mutations in organisms, which can be dangerous for our health, our environment and the biodiversity throughout the world. This leads us to the fact that synthetic biology and genetic engineering are sometimes based on the somewhat false premise that each feature of individual is encoded in one or more specific genes. One might think that the transfer of one of these genes then automatically results in the transfer of that trait.

The truth is that no gene works in isolation, but is a part of an extremely complex genetic network. The exact function of a gene depends on the context of other genes in the genome. Scientists should become aware of the fact that is practically impossible to predict the outcome of a gene transfer.

New genes in nature

We should bear in mind that the introduction of genetically engineered organisms in the environment is very different from introducing other technological inventions. Mechanical and chemical inventions can easily be contained, recalled and eliminated. This is not the case with (genetically engineered) microorganisms. Here the consequences can be irreversible and definitive, due to he fact that this organisms continue to reproduce and spread.

This problem originated from the fact that scientists are now learning how to design life down to the last letter. Everyday new facts about the secrets of life are discovered, but we aren’t ready to control that knowledge yet. There’s a need for some sort of oversight and regulation. We have to ensure that wisdom and accountability prevail. If we look how easy it will become to construct new life, it isn’t hard to imagine that ill open a way for terrorists to construct biological weapons.

Types of risks

Basically we can summarize the risks of genetic engineering and synthetic biology by dividing them in three types of risks. The first one is the risk of infections of employees of laboratories. In spite of all the taken precautions, it can happen that people are infected with synthetic viruses or micro-organisms that cause disease. A second risk is the escape of viruses and micro-organisms from the lab, which could cause an epidemic. Micro-organisms on clothes of laboratory staff can reach the environment and cause serious damage to the ecosystem. A last type of risk implies the disturbance of the ecological balance. Organisms with a specific function in the environment can remain there even if they aren’t needed anymore. This can imply a serious destabilization of the delicate balance we find in nature.

Lab accidents

Looking at the large history of lab accidents, it’s possible that Dr. Coli escapes from the laboratory, even if it’s one at a very high security level. The consequences of such an escape can be severe. Governments claim that modern safety rules at labs are sufficient to avoid a possible outbreak. However several incidents are reported each year, despite of containment procedures. Even high-security labs are not entirely protected against disasters. During the last decade, containment technology has improved dramatically, scientists learnt lessons from previous problems. The main problem probably lies in the attitude of some scientists. Everybody should be aware and has to learn that other people can die if they make a mistake. However some people aren’t used to handling things that way. Microbes are more dangerous than we think. Simple bacteria can form bacterial networks and those can perform very sophisticated tasks, when compared to their actual simplicity. If a bacteria with artificial features escapes from the lab it can oust natural bacteria in the environment.

The spread of pathogens can be easily limited by very simple things: washing hands before leaving the lab, wearing a lab coat, wearing goggles... The risk of lab accidents increased over the past few years. Due to the huge popularity of synthetic biology and genetic engineering, the number of labs working on these subjects increased dramatically. With this increase in new researchers working with pathogens increases the chance on the occurrence of a lab accident. Problems that can occur during work in the laboratory are the leakage of contaminated waste, people that drop containers with cultures, shipments with pathogens that are lost, a virulent stem of bacteria that’s labelled as a harmless one. These examples show that the danger of so called bioerror is much larger then the chance of bioterror.

Governments are concerned about possible consequences of a large virus or pathogen outbreak. Such an outbreak could have devastating consequences. A couple of years ago, a research program on the consequences of an escape of a pathogen from a laboratory has been outlined. Let’s say the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease escapes. This isn’t unrealistic, it happened once on a low scale in Great Britain. If the virus could infect a serious amount of cattle and efforts to contain the infection to a small area fail, this could cause a catastrophe. The infection model made by those American scientists, predicted the need to kill the entire live stock in order to prevent the spreading of the virus. This could lead to food shortage in some cities, which would cause riots among the citizens. As shown by this infection model, the consequences of the escape of a simple but highly pathogenic bacteria can be enormous (4).

Precautionary principle

Given all these risks, a precautionary principle was postulated. This states that an action which is risky and could cause widespread and irreversible damage should not be pursued, especially when there is a lack of full scientific certainty about the outcome of the action on the organism and on his environment. Synthetic organisms have to be tested thoroughly regarding to their safety and use before they can be used on humans or in nature. If we would apply the precautionary principle to the letter, it means that we’d have to cease all research on synthetic biology. It’s clear that this is a far to extreme way of dealing with the risks of synthetic biology and genetic engineering.

A more healthy and sound way of coping with the many ethical problems, is to follow a step by step approach starting from the precautionary principle. This implies that synthetic organisms should be regarded as dangerous until the opposite is proven. Early test with new organisms should be done in laboratories of the highest security level, when there’s more certainty about the safety, scientists can take a step forward to a lower level of security.

Social commitment in bioethics

The European debate on the use of gene technology in agriculture showed us that moral and social ideas are issues to considerate. If we don’t discuss differences between the existing beliefs, it will lead us to a lack of understanding between different sides and we will end up in a futile discussion. If we want to create a meaningful debate on the whole ethical issue of synthetic biology, it’s important that we have a good understanding of the history and background of the many different opinions.

Three central ideas

A commission on genetic modification postulated three central ideas that are present in all debates concerning the ethics of genetic engineering and synthetic biology: justice, autonomy and culture and naturalness. The first idea, the value of justice, means that everybody should get an equal amount of goods when there’s a distribution of material goods and access to certain services, but it’s about social relations too. The principle of justice is especially important when regarding the use of information of a certain DNA sequence, access to technology and the right of ownership.

Autonomy, the second value we consider, is the freedom to decide what you want and to set your own objectives, the right to self-determinate. If one wants to make his own decisions, it’s important that everyone has access to relevant information about all options. Not only information about options is important, the simple fact that there are several possibilities available to choose from, is equally important. Striving towards autonomy implies people, who are capable of achieving innovations all by their selves.

Culture and naturalness are about the relation between people and the nonhuman environment they live in. The way people react on changes in their environment, is important. Naturalness describes the relation between people and their environment; culture is all about the changes people make in their environment.

Attitude towards this values

In our society there are many different opinions regarding this three values. People can have a more static or dynamic view on the way we can interfere with nature. An important question to put here, is how far we can go in creating life and changing the features of life. At some point the boundary between human and machine will become very thin.

Points of view

Among scientists, there is a tendency towards self-regulation. They think autonomy, room for creativity and freedom of publishing, are the most important conditions to explore new knowledge. They fear interference from politicians and the government. Those authorities are eager to limit or even prohibit new developments in synthetic biology. Scientists oppose strongly towards any meddling of the government and any restrictions there can be inflicted on research. Their answer to questions regarding the safety of their efforts is complete self-regulation.

At the other hand, society did not agree with this self-regulation anymore. They wanted to take part in the debate on the consequences of synthetic biology. There are three causes for this change in attitude in society.

First of all the organization of science itself has changed. The contribution of private financing to scientific research increased. In earlier days scientists were part of an elite, the power and the money they received was equivalent to the status and the standing of the researcher. Today it’s more a matter of political and economical power. A certain research is restricted by judicial, financial and ethical constraints.

A second cause for the shift in attitude, is the fact that the influence of social organizations has grown. Since the appearance of some products resulting from this research on the market, social organizations began to meddle in the debate. Before that time, there was criticism too, but it wasn’t organized. Nowadays, with the modern communication techniques, it’s simpler to get access to information about new developments in science and technology. Thanks to the internet, people can form worldwide networks and share their visions and opinions.

A last point we should consider is the changed attitude of society towards research. Society wanted to be more involved in scientific research. The community is now involved in the organization of a social dialogue concerning every aspect and application of synthetic biology. They find self-regulation ineffective and not democratic. Due to all this changes, a meeting on bioethics with only representatives of science became unacceptable. Scientists can’t make decisions without considering the opinion of the common people. And yet social organizations are scarcely invited to join the debate.