Press Release 01/2010

The German Ethics Council holds a forum on the ethics of synthetic biology

Shall we soon be creating “life-forms from a self-assembly kit”, and if so how might our image of humanity be changed? This question was addressed by the German Ethics Council on 24 February 2010 at a public evening meeting in the Bioethics Forum series.

The young field of research known as synthetic biology is increasingly making headlines featuring so-called “living machines”, “bio-bricks” and “artificial cells”. Using standardized gene modules and applying engineering principles, scientists seek to put together tailor-made living organisms.

As the molecular biologist Bärbel Friedrich explained in her introductory lecture, recent advances in DNA sequencing and synthesis allowed complex gene modules to be quickly and easily analysed, manipulated and created anew in the laboratory. The aim of synthetic biology was to produce useful microorganisms that could, for example, make pharmaceutical active substances or biofuels reliably and by clearly defined techniques. The safety provisions of Germany’s Genetic Engineering Law offered adequate protection from risk, and in addition safety switches could be incorporated to prevent propagation in the wild.

The ensuing panel discussion, moderated by Wolf-Michael Catenhusen, a member of the Ethics Council, was devoted to the ethical and anthropological aspects of synthetic biology. The philosopher Andreas Brenner and the theologian Peter Dabrock, together with Ethics Council members Volker Gerhardt and Eberhard Schockenhoff, considered whether, by its aspiration to create completely novel life, synthetic biology might change our attitude to life itself and lead to an understanding of man as “homo creator” involving new facets of his relationship to himself.

Andreas Brenner stated that the principal challenges of synthetic biology concerned risk assessment, global justice and our conception of “life”. If life were to be regarded no longer as something that had come into being or been created, but instead as something manufactured, the dignity of nature was at issue; hence the need for an ethical and a cultural debate.

Volker Gerhardt saw synthetic biology not only in the tradition of the natural sciences, which analysed nature in terms of cause and effect, but also in that of philosophy, in which nature was explored by a unified approach based on an interest in its unity. Although this was equally true of synthetic biology, that discipline nevertheless represented a more substantial and deeper interference with the self-controlling processes of life. This had the consequence of increased responsibility on the part not only of the individual but also, and in particular, of society.

Peter Dabrock was intrigued by how often the notion of “playing God” featured in the public debate on synthetic biology – more frequently, in fact, than with other contemporary biotechnologies. Many people evidently found the creation of life uncanny because it blurred the boundary between life and non-life. On this point, Professor Dabrock saw an urgent need for discussion, both on the part of the scientific community with regard to the possibilities and limits of synthetic biology, and on that of the public, in terms of the directions of research it deemed unacceptable.

In the view of Eberhard Schockenhoff, the metaphor of “playing God” was a manifest dramatization, as the full flowering of synthetic biology required processes to be seen as secondary to nature – that is, to be applied with constructive intent. Creating life as a mere commodity to serve our needs without ethically responsible regulation of those needs would, however, impoverish our relationship with nature.

In the concluding discussion with members of the audience, the main issues raised were risk research, technology assessment, and possible regulatory mechanisms for synthetic biology, as well as the relevance of the concept of human dignity in the debate on synthetic biology.

The German Ethics Council will consider how it can best keep abreast of and contribute to the discourse on synthetic biology.