“Study the past, if you would divine the future” – Confucius

Scientific study is generally perceived as the development of new ideas and novel data, but underlying this is the fact that scientific advancement is made by building formerly known information on top of new innovation. Indeed, without the discovery of the cell, synthetic biology would never exist.

In the same way that scientific advancements can be made by looking at prior invention, the Lethbridge iGEM Team believes that synthetic biology ethical advancements can also be made by looking at ethical concerns of the past. Due to the fact that synthetic biology is such a new science, we are in the position to dictate ethical rules that should be implemented as new discoveries are made.

Lethbridge iGEM Team has chosen to look at significant scientific discoveries of the past and analyze them from ethical, environmental, economic, legal, and social standpoints. Learning how ethics has been dealt with (or should have been dealt with!) in the past can significantly shape the direction of ethical development in the field of synthetic biology.

Through our analysis of cloning, antibiotics, internet, and nuclear power, the Lethbridge iGEM Team will “divine the future” of ethics and its relationship with the newly developing field of synthetic biology.


Most textbooks and scientific papers define cloning as the biological process during which an individual(s) produces identical individuals mostly as a result of asexual reproduction. In biotechnology, cloning refers to creating multiple copies of DNA fragments, cells or organisms. At the molecular and cellular level, cloning and genetic engineering have greatly impacted the manner in which we live our lives. Research in these areas have led to the development of techniques such as PCR and recombinant technology, which have numerous applications in the lives of humans - from advances in medicine which facilitated synthesis of insulin for diabetic patients, to the modern day forensic units, which use PCR to amplify DNA and identify criminals.

As with any scientific method or technique that is seen as interfering with nature, molecular and cellular cloning has endured decades of debate. This is because many people, including scientists, believe it must be a priority that a procedure can be first and foremost implemented without risk to humans, and then as well to other animals and the environment. The main issue, is that the progression of science should not be used as an excuse to abuse or rampantly exploit any organisms on earth. In response to this concern, many guidelines and policies have been drafted in order to ensure that safe practices are employed in laboratory settings worldwide. Additionally, it is forbidden by law, in most countries, to violate any of the regulations.

Animal cloning emerged randomly as a result of experiments that focused on determining which types of cells were required to clone animals. The first cloned animals were Northern Leopard Frogs in 1952 (1). Soon after, plants began to be cloned at an increasing rate. The major breakthrough in the cloning of animals was the cloning of Dolly, a sheep. This came about as a result of the progress made in SCNT (Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer) technology. Dolly’s birth created much heated debate and discussion as this raised many ethical concerns regarding the eventuality of human cloning (1). The cloning of animals has not been perfected as evidence suggests that Dolly the sheep was only “conceived” after more than 300 attempts (1). This is compounded by the fact that Dolly had to be euthanized early in her short life due to health problems. Despite the great advances in scientific technology and its techniques, the perfection of cloning is still in the distant future. The greatest moral issue seems to be that if it takes 300 attempts to achieve success, is it relevant to continue research on animal cloning, despite the evidence of such failure? In response to such issues, scientists who perform research on rats and other mammals are forbidden from conducting research in which the organisms are willingly killed or mutilated (2). This indicates that great strides have been made in dealing with the ethics of right and wrong when conducting scientific research.

In the laboratory, bacterial microorganisms propagate through asexual reproduction and once scientists discovered this, they begun to formulate questions about this unique way to reproduce. Currently, bacteria’s ability to rapidly reproduce asexually is exploited in laboratories all around the world. Bacteria have proven to be a valuable resource in their capacity as model organisms in research, and their use has been well documented and studied to ensure that the public’s safety is never in harms way, as a result of an experiment that has gone amiss.

This leads to our conclusion that in the advancement of science, the examples provided above have illustrated that the negative public perception of scientific breakthroughs can be changed over time if the public is informed on proceedings and are given all the relevant information regarding potential benefits and costs so that an informed decision can be made. The public has proven to be very influential in decision making regarding the kind of cloning research that is conducted. Governments have developed ways to ensure that high quality research continues but not at the price of moral decay.

Take Home Message

The recent emergence of synthetic biology has revolutionized our way of thinking scientifically, but, as was expected, it has also raised a lot of ethical debates due to its wide scope of applications in the field. It is important that all parties involved in synthetic biology research actively participate in educating the public on this new field, ensuring that all parties are made aware of the infinite possibilities and applications available in synthetic biology. Just as with any other type of scientific research, the public needs to be reassured that their safety and that of other animals and the environment are not at risk and that rules and regulations have been put in place to ensure that ethical values are represented when conducting research using synthetic biology.


(1) Hsu M.B. 1998-1999. Banning human cloning: An acceptable limit on scientific inquiry or an unconstitutional restriction of symbolic speech? 87 Gel. L.J. 2399

(2) Suckow M.A., Weisbroth S.H. 200. The Laboratary rat. “Ethical and legal perspectives – Beverly J. Gnadt”. 53-70.


The spread of disease and sickness caused by microorganisms brought about widespread death for many centuries, and it wasn’t until the discovery of antibiotics that the medical community was finally able to fight off infection and bacterial growth. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin from the mold Penicillium notatum which inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium common in many diseases (1). Modern chemotherapy originated in Germany in the early twentieth century under Paul Ehrlich who began looking for a “magic bullet” that he speculated would selectively destroy pathogens but not the host organism (1). Originally, antibiotics were seen as a “miracle cure” and there was no medical evidence that indicated that was any need to be concerned with their extensive use. With the development of new antibiotics specific to certain bacteria, the field of medicine had become even more successful in curing illness and disease. However, over time, it was discovered that the overuse and misuse of antibiotics had promoted the evolution of new resistant bacteria which were impossible to destroy (1). These bacteria, which are invulnerable to any antibiotic currently developed, could potentially lead to a massive outbreak of untreatable patients with life threatening infections.

The use of antibiotics, which play such a major role in the health and welfare of human beings, has many ethical considerations which were inadvertently overlooked at the time of their initial introduction into society. Notably, the most significant was their misuse. With the eradication of diseases and an improvement in the medical success rate, there was an increased usage of antibiotics in an effort to stop any bacterial sickness before it spread. Doctors thus began prescribing patients high dosage antibiotics that were strong enough to wipeout all the targeted bacteria if taken as instructed. The near to impossible task for doctors was and still is, to try to impress upon their patients the importance of finishing the entire prescription regardless if they were feeling better after only taking half of the prescribed dosage.

The intentions of all of the parties involved in the sale, distribution, and regulation of antibiotics and other drugs, must be considered when looking at this from an ethical stand point. During the developing of new antibiotics, scientist were primarily concerned with ways to combat disease and were unaware that society would, or even could, misuse their products through both excessive and insufficient, usage. The doctors were concerned with the well being of their patients, so they distributed antibiotics as they deemed fit. The large drug companies’ primary interest was to sell large quantities of their product and amass the largest possible profit. Eventually, it became the responsibility of the government to step in and look after the regulation and legal issues regarding antibiotics. When it comes to the health and welfare of the public, the government will always ultimately be held responsible. Although the degree of government intervention varies from country to country, it is apparent that the differences between the public and private sector of the antibiotic development, distribution, and sale, are a source of.

Take Home Message

For our iGEM project, the private sector is committed both morally and financially, in helping us to develop a genetically engineered bacteria to try to clean up the tailings ponds. It is also very evident, that the government will play a major role in the development and acceptance of any course of action that may come out of our project. One lesson that can be learned from the history of antibiotic development and societal integration, is that it is imperative to be diligent not to misuse any synthetic organism. At this time, most synthetic biology projects have not been overused, strictly because of how new this field is. Nevertheless, as time progresses and new discoveries are made, researchers should always be thinking of ways to prevent the misuse and overuse of their experiments, regardless of their original intentions.


(1) Tortora, Gerard J., Funke, Berdell R., and Case, Christine, L. 2010. Microbiology: An Introduction (10th Edition), Pearson Benjamin Cummings, San Francisco, CA. pp. 554.


The Internet initially began in the 1960s to allow for a globally, interconnected set of computers, that could provide quick and easy access to various data and programs for users (1). By the 1980s, progress in the development of the Internet included networks that revolutionized the world of computers and communication by bringing about the invention of the World Wide Web by European scientists (1). Currently in 2010, the Web has become a crucial part of everyday life, and almost necessary for successful social interaction. Who would have thought that a scientific innovation spearheaded by numerous MIT researchers, would evolve into the sophisticated system it is today, that allows anyone access to every type of multimedia?

Like many scientific discoveries, the Internet and the World Wide Web has led to many ethical dilemmas. Rather unforeseeable at first, was the profound impact the Internet and the World Wide Web would have on the social aspect of people’s lives. The advent of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and even the prevalence of e-mail accounts, changed how people communicate and interact, and therefore had a major impact on their relations (2). The effect of time spent on the Internet and World Wide Web has only recently been extensively studied, and has been shown to not only reduce the frequency of social activities but also productivity at work (2). Although providing a brand-new market for advertisers, these scientific advancements have also altered the manner in which the News is reported, by decreasing the popularity of historical forms of media such as newspapers, radio, and television (2). The accessibility to a wide variety of information on the Internet and World Wide Web has led to a decline in privacy, and has increased the ability of individuals to misrepresent themselves, their goods or products, and sometimes even sources of knowledge such as Wikipedia (2).

Initially, the scientists that developed this remarkable method of communication, did not even consider how openly and enthusiastically, people would reveal private information on the Internet or World Wide Web. Their primary focus was to discover and optimize another communication system, and it seems there was an unintentional lack of regard to the direction and liberties the public would take with this new innovation.

Take Home Message

In the world of synthetic biology, OpenWetWare, an online platform, was designed and developed for the sharing of scientific information between researchers and labs. If groups are not careful with the important content they share on World Wide Web sites, there is a significant chance that their rights to project ideas, protocols and even results may not be respected. Open access to information on the Internet or World Wide Web, gives individuals and companies knowledge that may be used inappropriately for personal gain and profit. This is particularly important to our iGEM team’s project, which focuses on cleaning tailings pond's water that are a result of oil sands extraction. As this project is of significance to both the environment and economy of Alberta, many interested individuals or groups could use the information available online to their advantage. We believe the main lesson that can be taken from the development of the Internet and World Wide Web, has to be the degree to which information should be shared for the benefit of all. Unfinished or unsubstantiated experimental data should not be shared with the masses, and scientific excellence and achievement should only be credited where it is rightfully due.


(1) Leiner B.M., Cerf V.G., Clark D.D., Kahn R.E., Kleinrock L., Lynch D.C., Postel J., Roberts L.G., Wolff S. 2010. A Brief History of the Internet. Internet Society.

(2) Brignall T.W., Valey T.V. 2005. The Impact of Internet Communications on Social Interaction. Sociological Spectrum. 25: 335 - 348.

Nuclear Power

In the early 1900s, radioactive materials were first discovered. Up until this time, the idea that some atoms displayed signs of “radioactivity” was known, but specific details were lacking. After scientists realized how to rearrange atoms using neutrons, it did not take long before German chemists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman bombarded some isotopes of uranium with thermal neutrons revealing traces of barium and the first glimpses of nuclear energy technology (1). This newfound knowledge sparked the interest of Niels Bohr and Francis Perrin who both worked on methods of slowing down the decaying process of neutron emission, right before World War II broke out (1). Werner Heisenberg’s student, Rudolf Pieierls, took over this work, building on Perrin’s theories (1). Since Pieierls worked for the German energy project, his team began working on ways of integrating this technology into warfare. Although they were unsuccessful, both the United States and Britain saw this development as challenging and significant and were spurred to carry on developing the atomic bomb (1). During the war, governmental efforts increased drastically towards such research, and on July 16, 1945, the United States tested their first atomic bomb in New Mexico (1). Not long after in August of 1945, the United States put two bombs into service and detonated them over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan (1). These two events are the only active deployments of nuclear weapons in war. 90,000 to 166,000 people died in Hiroshima and 60,000 to 80,000 died in Nagasaki (1). Most of the deaths were from the effects of burns and radiation sickness with the balance coming as a result of other injuries and illness. After the end of World War II, efforts once again turned to energy production.

In December of 1951, Experimental Breeder Reactor I, the first nuclear electricity-generating power plant, was operational and it produced enough electricity to power 4 200-watt light bulbs (2). By the time it was decommissioned in 1964, it was able to provide enough energy to run its own facility. This marked the beginning of nuclear electrical energy production. In 2009, 13 to 14% of the world’s electricity came from nuclear power (1).

There are many ethical issues that arise when discussing the use of nuclear power. The impact of its use is felt environmentally, economically and socially. Proponents of nuclear power argue that it is a sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions and is a viable alternative to fossil fuels. This reduces the environmental impact of producing power but does not answer the question of who would willingly want to have a nuclear plant in their backyard. Opposition groups point out that there are threats to people, in the illicit production of nuclear weapons, and the environment, with the problems of processing, transporting and storage of radioactive nuclear waste. There is currently no method to totally dispose of all the waste so some kind of arrangement is necessary to safely store the refuse. Once again, where would this facility be located and who would want it near their community where they are living? Economically, because of the capital cost involved, the initial building of a nuclear power plant can be very costly. As well, the regular expenditure required to store the waste material and the expense of the eventual decommissioning of the plant must all be considered when determining if nuclear power is the most economical method of power generation.

Take Home Message

Whether it is to determine the best alternative source of energy or the discovery of a method to eradicate the leftover refuse from the oil sands, it is imperative to study the ethical issues related to a product or procedure before implementation. Many disasters can often be prevented through thorough discussions and investigations with knowledgeable people in their respective fields of study.


(1) June 2010. Outline History of Nuclear Energy. World Nuclear Association.

(2) Walsh J. 2010. Experimental Breeder Reactor - 1. Idaho National Laboratory.


It has been very enlightening to look at scientific inventions of the past from an ethical point of view. No matter which area of discovery that the Lethbridge iGEM team researched; cloning, antibiotics, the internet or nuclear power, it was obvious that there were social, environmental, economic and legal implications that always needed to be addressed. Our synthetic biology project is no different. What we have learnt from our investigation is that it is important to try to act proactively and anticipate problems that may arise and be a concern for the safety of all living matter. Information needs to be readily available about synthetic biology so the public is knowledgeable about how it is being used and the discoveries that are being made to improve their well-being. In all scientific research, a good public perception is vital since it will be the people through their corporate sponsorship and elected officials in government that will support and ultimately finance worthwhile projects involving synthetic biology.