Bioethics Forum

Synthetic Biology – Life from a Construction Kit?

Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Leibniz-Saal, Markgrafenstraße 38, 10117 Berlin

Topic

The young field of research known as synthetic biology is making headlines featuring so-called “artificial cells”, “living machines” and “bio-bricks”. But what can we make of such metaphors?

Using standardized genetic modules and applying engineering principles, scientists seek to put together tailor-made living organisms. The development of artificial biomolecules is also one of the interests of synthetic biology. The aim is to create microorganisms that carry out biological functions useful to humans, e.g. the production of new pharmaceutical substances, in a particularly reliable and manageable way.

While synthetic biology appears to be a logical further stage of conventional biotechnology and genetic engineering and causes similar safety concerns, the question arises as to whether its claim to create new life-forms does not also pose new bioethical challenges:

  • Do humans cross ethical limits by intervening in the fundamental blueprints of life? – “Playing God”?
  • Does the possibility of creating and controlling “artificial life” raise new questions about the definition of life and how we deal with it?
  • What might be the effects on our self-understanding when we are faced with the impression of an unlimited human creative power in designing life, as it is currently promoted by synthetic biology?
  • The German Ethics Council will focus on these questions and discuss whether synthetic biology is reaching a qualitatively new level of intervention in life and what consequences this could have for our understanding of life and humanity.

Prof. Dr. Bärbel Friedrich gave an introductory talk on the scientific basics of synthetic biology and also talked about the safety aspects of this research. In the subsequent panel discussion, PD Dr. Andreas Brenner and Prof. Dr. Peter Dabrock, together with Council members Prof. Dr. Volker Gerhardt and Prof. Dr. Eberhard Schockenhoff, took a closer look at synthetic biology from a philosophical and theological perspective. Council member Wolf-Michael Catenhusen guided through the programme.