Synthetic Biology and Ethics

Synthetic Biology and Ethics

Farah Kamal1, Sana Shaheen1, Purwa Khan1, Shakra Jamil2, Rahil Shahzad2

  1. Centre of Agricultural Biochemistry and Biotechnology, University of Agriculture Faislabad
  2. Agricultural Biotechnology Research Institute, AARI, Faisalabad.

What is synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology is the branch of science that deals with the use of living and non living materials to produce organisms and their parts that have never been existed in nature. It apply the principles of engineering to biology to produce new biological systems and to re-design pre-existed natural biological systems for useful purposes. The research and production in synthetic biology raises ethical issues ranging from social to moral and religious. The practical applications of genetic engineering including gene therapy also attracted different reactions from people who were against the use of GMO’s. In 1987, the first genetically modified bacteria was released into the environment in California. These bacteria were sprayed on strawberry and potato plants to prevent them from frost damage. There were several ethical objections from protesters against GMO’s e.g. they thought that science and technology were going to invade into their bodies through genetically modified bacteria that had never existed in nature before. Another protester against GMO, Jeremy Rifkin has added that these GM product are more dangerous than already existed petrochemical products as GM products are alive so they can mutate and reproduce to make copies of themselves. GMO’s were then considered as an impurity that should not be introduced into the natural environment. But inspite of the protest of 1987, GMO crops of soyabean, maize, rice and cotton etc are now grown all over the world. How one can deduce from this situation? Anti GM activist were wrong? It has been thirty years and the planet is still safe. But may be this time span is too short and by the time being spontaneous unpredictable changes may be occur in the natural environment.

Genetically modified food products:

Calgene Flavr Savr, a biotech company introduced a GM tomato in 1994. It could be picked up when it was ripe and still have shelf life to be safely transported to distant places. Because of its high production, it was passed by United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) because no risks were identified by FDA. Another company Zeneca, introduced a pectin enriched tomato that was processed and sold successfully. At the same time, opposition against genetic modification of food products was strong in Britain at the time of Prince Charles who stands out as strong anti GM activist. The public opinion also shifted from “GM food is more tastier” to “who knows what’s inside the GM food”. In June 2016, the US federal legislation law had passed that the GM foods or food containing GM components must be labeled so that the consumer purchasing the can could read it on the label. Later on in July 2016, American president Barack Obama has signed the law, more clearly called the labeling law. According to this law, it is obligatory to label the GM products. But on the insistence of industries (e.g. Monsanto), labeling needs not be visible by the consumer but only accessible by Smartphone. It makes clear that US-FDA is not willing to do what would expect a labeling law because there is no scientific proof of the risks associated with the GMO’s.

Critics on cloning:

At the turn of millennium human reproductive cloning and embryonic cell research grabbed the attention of people after that a synthetic organism a bacteria named synthia grabbed the attention of people. In 1997cloning was started when dolly sheep was cloned. Later on cats,cattles and rats etc were  also cloned and no major worries were raised. However cloning of human was severely condemned and was immediately banned by UNESCO followed by other countries as well.

In 1998 university of Madison Wisconsin managed to produce stable line of human embryonic stem cells. Hence these cells can function as any human body part they were used in many therapies especially personalized medical solution, likewise human cloning stem cells research has also been criticized. Cloning is rejected because of its artificial character and stem cell cultivation is rejected because it stops biological process of embryos leaving them in undifferentiated state. The difference between these two techniques is stem cell research is generally industrialized.

Human genome project:

In2003 Human genome project was declared completed. This project raised the idea of genetic testing for dormant diseases in individual and populations. The possibility of parental and preimplantation testing and screening of fetuses and embryos raised hopes and fears about producing healthier and better individual and therapy improving the human race. Difficult medical choices and then issues in genetics forced the discipline of bioethics into existence. Critics have argued that obtaining genetic information may be harmful individual as they may cause police state or selecting children may add pressure to the parents but they have been responded by the development more palatable achievements and by promoting the “public understanding of science”

Stages for any advanced technology:

In term presented by Joseph advances come in three stages: invention, innovation and diffusion. When a new technique is made like gene splicing media is full of hype ,raises the issues or dangers regarding the technique after several years the products is marketed and by the time innovation is ready to be diffused, worries are forgotten unless something was horribly wrong. After genetic recombinant technology synthetic biology is considered second quantum leap in biology by help of which we can add into building blocks of organisms.

In 2010 first synthetic organism Mycoplasma mycoids “synthia” was produced the obvious headline was “scientists create life out of nothing” and “synthetic biologists play God”. This attached the attention of United State presidential commission but as the life was only a replica of organisms, no serious issue was raised.


Objections and United State Presidential Commission:

But creating new life may lead to bad consequences, unwanted fear and need public approval. The fate does not constitute the creation of life in near future but the main focus of United State Presidential Commission is to create new beneficiary products and assure the environmental, social and ethical risks to public. The commission calls on the Government for risk assessment and support to engage and educate public in beneficial research. But from the lines of Commission the promises of Synthetic Biology are still vague; as it is so close to create life from Scratch, so we cannot ensure the public about its ethical issues before knowing its nature and consequences.

The Commission came up with five ethical principle for the implications of advanced technologies1) public beneficence, 2) responsible leadership, 3) democratic deliberation and 5) justice and fairness.  Creating new life could be wrong and dangerous. We are human beings neither omniscient nor omnipotent.  We cannot fix any wrong thing as the God-like agents could. But we should think carefully about their consequences before. 2nd objection is about the Food Purity and the polluting effects of products of synthetic biology (e.g in case of GMOs). As GM crops have pest resistance, better yield and make the farmers richer but in some cases, GM crops have been manipulated not to reproduce in nature because of environmental contamination.

Three Principles of Synthetic Biology:

According to Precautionary Principle if the consequences of any decision are hazardous then the decision should be postponed, until meticulous investigations declared that they do not suspect any detrimental implications. Almost all advances of Synthetic biology have not been tried before and are unpredictable; as a result of this fear the innovations remain unimplemented. Science friendly ethicists believe in hopeful Principle that prefer the technological progress for future under ethical scrutiny instead of fear and anxieties that cause serious suffering. Both of these principles are traced back to the Wager argument of Blaise Pascal, according to which scientist should choose the commitments with finite costs and infinite gains. Threat of disaster is the main hindrance in the way of technological progress due to the believers of precautionary principle but the hope of bliss moves the champion of hopeful principle to argue for emerging advances.


Today, scientists are working on innocuous-looking projects with little controversy but having power to revolutionize the technology, Economy, production, and also our notion of life and humanity. If we commit ourselves to the democratic and equality values, we should all be well informed about the emerging technologies of synthetic biology and get benefits from their advances.



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  • Häyry M. Playing God: Essays on Bioethics. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press; 2001; and Häyry M. Utilitarian approaches to justice in health care. In: Rhodes R, Battin MP, Silvers A, eds. Medicine and Social Justice: Essays on the Distribution of Health Care. New York: Oxford University Press; 2002:53–64.
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Rahil Shahzad
Rahil Shahzad

I belong to District Sialkot. I am MSc (Hons) in Plant Breeding and Genetics, worked as Agriculture Officer Daska, Assistant Research Officer (Maize and Millet's Research Officer and Agricultural Biotechnology Research Institute, AARI, Faisalabad).

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