Team:BIOTEC Dresden/Ethics



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 of their continuous need to find answers by trying new things. 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 and industry.

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 solutions for many current problems concerning health or living supplies. Regardless of how noble the aims can be, it is necessary to consider the ethical questions arising from this kind of projects.

For the iGEM competition, it is important to assure the ethics and safety of the project and the product. That is very important since it is an undergraduate competition having budding scientists from all over the world, who will be confronted with these safety and ethical issues in their future careers.

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 people of age 22-65, of different nationalities and different backgrounds.

The survey and its results were as follows:


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

Around 94% of the people answered yes, mostly agreeing that it is an essential step for Biology to move forward and finding new solutions. This outcome means to us that we, as young scientiest in the field of genetic engineering, are well respected by the society for what we do.

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 were 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 priorities differ from one place to another according to its needs and background.

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.

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:

The results for health was the risk of production of potential pathogenic bacteria and their release into the environment, as well as the production of GM crops and their effect on humans after consumption. Regarding environmental risks included the production of new organisms that would not be controlled nor predicted. It is also worth mentioning that some of the postulated risks are improbable from the scientific point of view.

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.

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

About 56% from the entire pool answered yes.

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. Spreading information about the research going on as well as its safety measures, would help decrease the fear from its alleged risks among the public. 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 the experiments.

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

87% think yes. Some teams have already invented very useful and practical 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. 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, the rest who said yes stated that the method is invasive.

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% answered yes, as long as the process is efficient and safe it would give advantage for its use over the conventional methods, even if it was a transgenic organism.

In conclusion, it is worth mentioning that SensorBricks is not in contradiction with any moral values, because it is a simple detection method. It does not pose any risks for the health of the patient as it is an in-vitro process performed with the patient's blood samples that are collected in advance. Moreover, it is designed to contribute to the efficiency of medical diagnosis procedures and has the advantages of making the diagnosis process efficient and fast, favoring many people.

BIOTEC_Dresden iGEM TEAM 2010.

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