Team:TU Delft/Safety/ethics


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Ethical Explorations

The TU Delft iGEM Team is now developing an alternative oil clean up strategy based on Synthetic Biology. Synthetic biology is a new field within science, and as with the introduction of most technologies, it is of great importance to reflect on the ethical issues it implies. In the case of Synthetic Biology this is rather complex, since it covers a whole field of science ranging from the design of biological parts, systems and even complete living organisms. Also whether this is truly a new discipline is a matter of debate, for one may argue that synthetic biology is just a new name for genetic modification; recombinant DNA technology already been around since the 1970s. Thus ethical issues surrounding this topic have been debated before, which will be discussed in this paragraph.

GMO release into the environment

When new parts, systems of organisms are designed as an bioremediation tool, this raises concerns about the (accidental) release of GMOs into the environment. Similar as in debates about GM Crops one could ask: how safe and secure is this application of Synthetic Biology?


By their very nature biological machines are able to evolve, proliferate and produce unexpected interactions. Possibly, oil degrading bacteria will inflict damage in environments where oil is vital. Another risk is the lack of control on the lifespan of the organisms outside the lab. Thus making the decision of its application irreversible. Besides, it could be foreseen that the horizontal transfer of genes will contaminate the natural genome pool, thereby disturbing the natural balance in certain niches.

There are however various possibilities to limit these safety concerns. For example by integration of self-destruct mechanisms, which will limit the lifespan of GMOs. Or the bugs could be designed in such a way that they are dependent on a certain nutrient which is scarcely available in nature. Nevertheless both solutions cannot completely diminish the risks of uncontrolled spreading.


The duality principle of scientific research also applies to Synthetic Biology. The synthesis of the poliovirus from mail-ordered DNA fragments (1) and the resurrection of the pandemic Spanish Flu virus of 1918 (2) showed that the same technology can be used for the good as well as the design of pathogenic organisms. One of the main concerns is the easy access and cheap availability of DNA synthesis, without any legal control (3). The media already report about ‘bio-hacking’ and ‘DIY Biotech’ more frequently (4), now that the protocols for using biological material are widespread on the internet (5). As a result Synthetic Biology is no longer a technique just available of academics.

Aside from these amateurs, probably most troublesome security issues are biological warfare programs by states. Although there are still technological difficulties to overcome in developing weapons from pathogens, individual states could overcome these in the near future. The development of synthetic bacteria in an open source setting, such as iGEM, might even contribute to these security risks, especially since not all states have signed or ratified the Biological Weapons Convention (6).

Artificial Life

Figure 2: Opposing another controversial biotechnology: Stem Cell research.
A great fear among the general public is scientists “playing God” and disrespecting natural life. Unfortunately, the worst nightmare of these people might already have come true. Recently the synthetically assembled 582,970 base pair genome of Mycoplasma genitalium was successfully ‘booted’ in a cell at the Craig Venter Institute. So the first organism is created does not have a natural ancestor (7).

The problem with this is that the distinction between artificial and natural life becomes more and more blurry. The definition of life as a self-sustaining chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution (8) might be scientifically sound, and does not discriminate between the two kinds. However, from certain religious points of view this definition is unsatisfactory.

So the question is, where do we draw the line between an engineered machine and a living being? Do treaties and conventions from the past apply to living machines? For example, the Treaty of Lisbon (2007) states about human dignity: “Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected”. But does the same dignity apply to human derivates as cell lines or even bacteria living in human bodies?


The application of synthetic biology in bioremediation also poses questions regarding inter-generational justice. As said , the release of GMOs in the environment are almost always irreversible. If for example bio-degradation of oil turns out to be harmful for the environment, this might endanger the preservation of natural resources for future generations.

Intellectual Property

The growth of DNA techniques, of which synthetic biology is a part, also leads to separate controversial practices, such as the patenting of organisms and (parts of) their DNA. One argument for patenting is that the ‘inventor’ should be able to benefit from the developed processes or products. Others argue that genetic information is a common natural resource (9), therefore making patenting of genes impossible. Also the limitations that patents pose on knowledge sharing and innovations are a matter of debate, for they could slow down scientific research.

Another concern, as with GM crops, is the technology’s relationship to the developing world. Artemisinin production by E. coli for example is one of the hallmarks of synthetic biology. The seemingly philanthropic purpose of curing malaria patients in fact also ensured that local production of natural Artemisia was no longer profitable. Since Novartis has a virtual monopoly on Artemisinin Combination Therapies (ACTs) this technology contributes to the discrepancy between wealth and health in the world. Thus patenting is also inflicting injustice in the world.

What makes the iGEM approach special is its aim for the design of interchangeable parts stored in an open source database. This means that none of the parts developed by iGEM teams can be patented. Assuming the free access to the internet, everyone is able to use the information gather by the team on the designed parts, but as mentioned before this can raise questions in safety.


Researchers working on bioremediation must consider their responsibility on the above mentioned topics. Starting with safety, it is clear that scientist should respect the legislation and regulation in labs to ensure their safety and that of their colleagues.

Moreover, during the design phase engineers should also take the application of the system outside the lab into account. Especially in the case of designing biological systems meant for application outside the lab, like oil degrading bacteria. The TU Delft iGEM Team has made sure that the all genes in the oil degradation pathways are under transcriptional control. Therefore the system will only be expressed in the presence of an inductor.

This does not ensure the secure application of the newly developed systems. All results and methods are published on the internet, without restrictions on its accessibility. However, the protocols that are used are already wide spread and the genes are available in NCBIs GenBank.

Scientist also have a more general responsibility towards society. Now that Synthetic Biology is developing people working in this field should start and participate in public debates. This starts with explaining the background of the technology. Which is why the TU Delft iGEM team 2010 is cooperating with the Science Centre to develop an educational program on synthetic biology.

Furthermore, society is the main financial contributor to scientific research. Thus society also has the right to benefit from it. Whether this involves patenting the inventions will differ in each case. Regardless of this it is the scientists responsibility to share their results and be transparent about their research objectives.

Finally, debates on the definition of “life” and it’s boundaries are of a much more philosophical nature. Therefore scientists should be educated in ethics to contribute to these discussions, but should also invite philosophical experts. Depending on the (cultural) background and the leading ethical framework that is used, decisions on the application of GMOs in bioremediation will be different in various places in the world.

Ethical frameworks

To determine whether a Synthetic Biology approach on bioremediation of oil pollution is a good act, one can use the ethical frameworks such as consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics.

According to consequentialism an action is morally right if the outcome is. Utilitarianism even extends this definition by judging an act on the overall contribution of happiness to the society as a whole. Two major pitfalls in this theory are the calculations that have to be made to quantify the effect of certain acts, and it does not account for the distribution of happiness. In case of the BP oil spill there is an estimate of damages and an approximation of the reduction in costs by application of an engineered bug could be calculated. However, the costs of the long term effects of GMO release to the environment are very unclear. Also if stocks of BP increase in value again, the increase in happiness of many people around the world would probably outnumber the pain of having a GMO polluted area locally.

Looking at this issues from a deontologists point of view we should not look at the outcome of actions, but judge actions by themselves. Immanuel Kant imposed that people should not be used as means to an end. So when considering inter-generational justice, the release of GMOs in the environment certainly is a violation of this rule. The availability of a unpolluted genome pool for example for future generations with unknown effects is a good example of using those people as a means to an end. So from a Kantian perspective the iGEM TU Delft Team approach is immoral.

Virtue ethics take the traits of character into consideration. One could argue that it is courageous to take up such a big challenge as oil spills. Furthermore, the fact that iGEM contestants volunteer to do so could be valued as very generous. At the same time, regarding modesty the Synthetic Biology community and especially the iGEM competition one could conclude that there is still a lot to gain. In total however this framework is a poor way of judging the morality of the project as a whole. Which traits of character is valued the most highly depends on the personal background of the one that makes the verdict.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Figure 3: Friends of the Earth against Frakenstein technology.
To summarize, depending on the ethical framework the Synthetic Biology approach to bioremediation is moral or not. This is why this topic will most likely be a matter of debate for many years to come, just like with recombinant DNA techniques. However, regardless of the frameworks some overall conclusions can be drawn.

As with any new technology public legitimacy and support is very important. Informing society and policy makers about its risks and benefits will help to ensure this process will succeed. Not only from a virtue ethics point of view it is imperative that scientists must not overhype the potential benefits and create unrealistic hopes. The iGEM competition does help in kick starting the debate, but due to its competitive nature overhyping might be a serious threat.

Before synthetically engineered organisms are released into the environment at least part of this debate should have led to the development of a governmental framework. Once the general public and policy makers get more acquainted with the technology and the long term consequences become more clear, it might get rid of its Frankenstein image.


  1. The Guardian (2006) link
  2. Tumpey, T.M. et al. (2005), Characterization of the Reconstructed 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic Virus, Science, vol 310, pp 77 - 80
  3. Schmidt, M (2008). "Diffusion of synthetic biology: a challenge to biosafety", Syst Synth Biol.
  4. VPRO Labyrint (2010), DNA hackers link
  5. DIY Bio & BioPunk
  6. Sixth Review Conference of the States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention, link
  7. J. Craig Venter Institute (2010), First Self-Replicating Synthetic Bacterial Cell, link
  8. leland, CE, et al.(2002). "Defining 'life'".Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere. 4(32):387-393
  9. Human Genome Organisation Ethics Committee, 2000. Genetic benefit sharing. Science, 290 (5489), 49.