Team:Hong Kong-CUHK/Project ethics




Conversation with Philosopher – Ethics issue on synthetic biology

This year, we are using microorganisms as a machine to achieve our work and we call them “E. cryptor”. However, to the others’ point of view, we are a group of crazy scientists trying to manipulate life to do whatever we want. This is the perception of people working on synthetic biology. Therefore, we invited a philosopher to discuss with us on this issue. Below are some ethics questions that we should think more before doing experiments on living organisms.

Playing God VS Playing Evil ?

Paris iGEM 2009 and Imperial iGEM team 2009 have discussed playing-God issue by manipulating the nature in the field of synthetic biology.  Here we regard God as the God of Christianity. If we refer to the bible, it warns people who use the “grace of our God” as “a license for immorality”" (Jude 1:4). It implies that we should not do anything that God does not allow. However, the Bible does NOT specifically talk about the subject of Synthetic biology and creating or modifying new organisms. Moreover, Genesis 1 refers God created everything (at that fixed time point). It did NOT mention if human being has the ABILITY and AUTHORITY to modify living organisms. As a result, debate is still going on to argue if gene-level modification on life or creation of artificial system of life is against God's work or not. Are the people doing synthetic biology playing God? This question is still controversial. What we want to share here are a few words for contemplation -  "If I were to choose between playing God and Evil, I would rather be the former. " Anonymous.

Curer VS Killer ?

Synthetic Biology opens a gateway of an array of applications currently under the practice of traditional methods, such as medicine, vaccine production, etc. For the traditional method, it is expensive and labor-intensive whereas the quality as well as the quantity cannot be guaranteed.  Creating a system by inserting gene inside bacteria, we can build a "micro-factory" for different antigens/antibodies and chemical production so as to archive the above applications.  However, if anything goes wrong, the chemical produced will be highly toxic and become a killing agent rather than a curing agent. Will the developers shed their responsibility and attribute all the faults to bacteria? To prevent such immoral action from happening, we need to set up some rules to clarify who has the duty to bear the responsibility rather than merely blaming bacteria for any undesirable outcomes.

Economic dilemma ?

Imperial iGEM team 2009 mentioned in “Economic factor" that if the production become available everyone, more people will own it. However, when we look at the today’s society, there are many LICENSED/COPYRIGHTED genes that give a spate of functions. Also, they are applied to series of applications like genetically modified food, gene therapy, DNA vaccine, etc.  All the gene sequence is from the nature and was discovered by scientists luckily. Thus, they exploit the nature / artificial gene to make money.

Most important, they claimed if there is no such an action, there will be a lack of financial support and scientific research cannot be encouraged. This is the dilemma. Will the synthetic biology give beneficial effects to the whole society and lead to sustainable development? Or, is it just a trick to allow poor scientists, funded only by universities, to start a market-dominating business with inexpensive set-up and synthetic biology technology? Unfortunately, we can only get the answer after the application is put into the market for a few years. When synthetic biology becomes a tool for profit-making, this ethics area is urged for discussion among the government and the general public, especially the business sector, before any immoral actions (exploitation of synthetic biology to harm people or damage the environment for profit-making) happen.

Start of life? End of life?

With the new idea – synthetic biology, we can now “reborn” many common and less significant organisms into a well-designed and functioning machine. Is it really an amazing issue?

During the Second World War, physicist Werner Heisenberg was working on a nuclear energy project in Germany. The project turned out to develop a nuclear weapon.  There was a rumor saying that it was his intention to have less success resulted in the project during that period and he warned people that he had the ability to make nuclear bomb. His action gave the Allies army enough time to defeat Hitler’s army. However, it was just an example that a person with a moral mind can override the curiosity of research. When we develop synthetic biology, there is a chance to transform the new system into designated biological weapons if people develop a lethal and functional machine using living organisms. It will eventually become the terminator of human beings. Based on the example and the future potential situation stated above, we need to ask ourselves one question: should curiosity override our moral rights?

Own knowledge? Own money

The current trend regard synthetic biology as intellectual property rights is increasing, prompting one to think not in terms of the universality of science but rather the one who owns it and the reason for it. With so much funding given to a research institute, there are lots of DNA sequences with studied functions being patented. Now this is the question, who is benefited from it? The research institute or the public? The DNA sequence representing a specific function in living organisms is patented. It is similar to patent an organism in another way. In this case, even if people share the knowledge (the DNA sequence related to the function), they still own it as we need to pay for it when we need to use that sequence, even though they can be found naturally. The ultimate benefit bearer is not the public. The public is cheated by millions of shared data passing around every day and still think they have the right to use it freely. Without doubt, this will bring an ethic question: Can we practise the knowledge we have gained? Can we use the DNA sequence  after learning without paying for it?

Suggested readings:

Berry, R. M. (2007). The ethics of genetic engineering. London, New York: Routledge.

Boylan, M. & Brown, K. E. (2001). Genetic engineering : science and ethics on the new frontier. Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Prentice Hall.

Bruce, D. & Bruce, A. (1999). Engineering genesis : the ethics of genetic engineering in non-human species. London: Earthscan.

Shannon, T. A. (2000). Made in whose image? : genetic engineering and Christian ethics. Amherst, N.Y. : Humanity Books.