Team:BIOTEC Dresden/Ethics


Revision as of 20:20, 27 October 2010 by Sarah Mansour (Talk | contribs)


General Considerations

Nowadays, the production and use of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) let them be plants, animals or any other organisms are viewed with big precaution by most societies. There are multiple reasons why people are not accepting this products; some of them accompanied by sound scientific arguments, whereas others by wrong understanding and fears influenced by mass-media.

On one hand, the people having nothing in common with biological sciences do not always know all the scientific background behind the problem, on the other hand, people in the biological field, in knowledge of the problem may be considered biased because their profession is usually their interest, belief and not last - their source of income. As society and scientists look for compromise, there is a big effort all over the world to create the legislative frame which will ensure the careful manipulation of GMO’s in environment, medicine, industry, in order to show respect for the people's opinion on this issue.

Synthetic biology is also about genetic manipulation – combining genes or fragments of genes from all kinds of life forms, modifying them in order to produce enhanced organisms able to be used for the sake of the mankind. Regardless of how noble the aims can be, it is necessary to consider the ethical questions arising from this kind of projects.

In the middle of all this fuss about gene manipulation here comes a synthetic biology competition among STUDENTS !! which offers the chance to apply into practice ambitious concepts harbored by their imagination (which is sometimes OK and sometimes NOT :) . This is an issue that is likely to rise questions from society's part, that’s why there stays a special requirement to accurately consider the ethical and safety aspects of each individual IGEM project.

In order to get a feeling of how society views genetic engineering, synthetic biology, the IGEM competition and our project in particular we conducted a small survey among a pool of about 40 young people of age 22-30, of German or other origin (ratio of about 1:1) of biological and non-biological background (same ratio).

You can follow us through the questions... and comments


1. Do you regard genetic engineering as an absolute necessity for scientific research?

About 90% answered yes which is actually the only right answer. Biology cannot move forward without altering the genes in so many ways to determine their functions and correlations with other genes in the cell, to enhance the products coded, etc.

2. Grade the areas below according to the need for approaches involving genetic engineering (you can use marks from 1 to 5, repeating marks allowed):

-medicine (research and therapy)

-environmental applications (e.g. fighting pollution, extracting salts from soil other)


-industry and energy

Scores distributed approximately equally with most for medicine and least for farming. It is quite hard to decide which ones are the most important since nowadays humanity has major problems on all of these lines. Quality of medicine is obvious for a healthy society as is fighting and preventing pollution. However, the need for effective farming which might not be seen as such a big problem today, even though there are people dying of hunger, will definitely become more acute in the future. The same is true fort supplying increasing amounts of energy and extraction/ recycling of scarce resources.

3. Is there an order for you in terms of ethics regarding gene manipulation performed on bacteria, plants, animals (except humans)? If yes give a score for each group (1 is least ethical).

Highest ethical concerns were raised for animals but nobody cares how would a bacteria feel like. It is probably a consequence of human nature, to show affection for things you can see and that resemble you in so many ways.

4. Could you list one or two main potential risks (for health, environment) arising from the use of genetically modified organisms.

-for health:

-for environment:

Most of the answers were too general and focused around the words “uncontrolled”, “unpredictable” and “side effects”. When talking about health risks, the mostly discussed ones are, for instance, the accidental production of pathogenic bacteria and their release into the environment(e.g. bacteria producing toxins, antibiotics). Debated risk for GM crops are supposed to be potential allergenic effects determined by the new genes, the potential of passing antibiotic resistance genes to bacteria inhabiting the human gut. Regarding environmental risks, the most prominent one might be the potential production of new organisms (for instance harboring several resistance genes) able to compete and substitute the natural ones from the environment potentially destabilizing entire ecosystems (e.g. the production of super-weed). Probably, the main ethical concern regarding gene modification is the crossing of the species boundaries by using genes from various organisms which can be in contradiction with how God planned everything. It is just important to mention, that some of the postulated risks are really improbable from the scientific point of view, whereas for others the best approach would be a careful one.

5. Synthetic biology deals with the construction of new biological entities such as new proteins with combined functions, genetic circuits and cells, but also with the remodeling of existing biological systems for a specific use. Do you think there are any ethical restrictions to practicing it?

More than 70 % think there ARE ethical restrictions. Oh yes, there are! Ask Craig Venter. Apart from jokes, due to the huge diversity of ideas being experimented, every single designed project in synthetic biology should be analyzed individually for its implications on morality.

6. If yes, do you think the potential advantages are overweighting the possible ethical problems.

About 56% from the entire pool answered yes. We also think yes, but maybe you would like to consider somebody else's opinion. Synthetic biology can provide new approaches for almost every aspect of human life.

7. How would you regard deliberate synthetic biology competitions among undergraduate students which include designing of genetically modified organisms with the aim to find solutions to various global problems.

78% approved. Allowing students to get an insight into the field of synthetic biology also makes them aware of potential risks and morality concerns. Within the society genetic engineering is still assessed with high concerns also caused by the rather new introduction of the field. The limited knowledge about those benefits and risk contributes to this. Therefore spreading more information about what exactly scientists are planning to do and why would probably also help minimizing fears from outside. Still we have to be careful when walking home since there are 12% left which not really agree. We avoided telling here that the team members SHOULD HAVE FUN doing their experiments (internal information). IGEM is not only about students, there are enough people involved in supervising the project and giving advices. The institutions where the projects are being carried out are usually aware of the workflow, aims and methods of these groups of experimenters.

8. Do you think the outcome is greater than the risks?

87% think yes. Some teams have already invented amazing things in the short time frame of the competition. Also the idea of having standardized parts improves the whole field and the related work of synthetic biology. Being completely free in the topic choosen also leads to ideas that are out of the box. Interestingly, also industry became aware of iGEM asking for inventive ideas solving industrial problems.

9. Do you think that creation of bacterial based biosensors for testing isolated blood samples from humans for certain diseases is in contradiction with any known moral rules or is posing any significant risks?

If Yes, please list some of them

97% answered NO (except 1 person who stated that the method is invasive).

As expected! if it was a YES, we would have sent our T-shirts to the Jamboree (they are nice!). .

10. If such biosensor systems would be much more sensitive than some of the currently used detection techniques and could make a big difference to the efficiency of disease diagnosis, would you grant its massive use along with the already established detection methods (considering that it is a transgenic organism)?

95% Yes. Straight way to thinking about a business

In conclusion, it is worth saying that the SensorBricks project cannot be in contradiction with any moral values, because it is a simple detection method, it is not posing any risks for the health of the patient as it is an in-vitro method performed with patient blood samples collected in advance. More than this it is designed to contribute to the efficiency of medical diagnosis procedures and has the perspectives for making the system cheaper and more available to benefit more people. BIOTEC Dresden IGEM TEAM 2010.

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