Synthetic biology and life: German Ethics Council encourages debate
The field of synthetic biology is popping up in the headlines with surprising regularity: While some see it as a normal development for biotechnology, others speak of divine creation in the laboratory. The German Ethics Council recently debated the issue in a public panel discussion in Berlin. The interest from the public was enormous: With over 320 participants, the Leibniz hall of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences was full to capacity, and extra rooms had to be arranged.
Today, a number of different approaches fall under the umbrella of the young research discipline of synthetic biology. Ultimately, the field involves managing and manipulating genetic building blocks according to principles of engineering – i.e. creating specific artificial biomolecules, cells or organisms that are not normally found in nature.
Thereby, there are two possible approaches: On the one hand, there are researchers who work with existing life forms such as microorganisms. These are reduced to their essential components in order to equip them with new features. On the other hand, there are research approaches in the lab that involve using non-living matter to create artificial life forms with entirely new properties. It is only the beginning of developments in this fledgling research discipline, but progress is being made all the time. In 2008, for example, American Genomics pioneer Craig Venter succeeded in duplicating an entire genome in the laboratory. Recently, British researchers managed to construct a designer protein factory that can be used to create entirely novel types of proteins.
Intervention in the blueprints of life
While many scientists regard synthetic biology as a consistent further development of biotechnology and genetic engineering, ethicists are frequently more critical. With this interference in the basic blueprints of life, are we overstepping ethical boundaries? Indeed, are we playing God? What is life, and how should we handle it? These questions and others were the focus of a panel discussion on 24 February hosted by the German Ethics Council in Berlin. The event met with considerable public interest – over 300 visitors came to hear the discussion.
Bärbel Friedrich, Professor of Microbiology at the Humboldt University in Berlin gave a brief introduction to the field from a scientific point of view, on the basis of the statement on Synthetic Biology published last year by German science organisations. “While the first sequencing of the human genome required more than a decade to complete, today it takes just ten hours”, said the researcher, emphasising the rapid revolution of genome decoding. In parallel, the production of artificial DNA molecules has progressed ever further, and they are used for an extremely broad range of applications in the laboratory. Today, according to Friedrich, we can see the first applications of synthetic biology. She presented, among others, the example of the malaria drug Artesiminin. Here, bioengineers in the US have succeeded in using genetically modified yeast to manufacture a precursor of this substance. This involved using genetic engineering techniques to integrate a relatively complex metabolic pathway of 13 production stages into the microbe.
Extracting biofuels with sunlight and water
Another research approach being developed by Friedrich herself is anticipated for the near future. “We are working on biosolar hydrogen production using designer cells,” explained the scientist. Friedrich thinks that this could tap an alternative fuel source that depends neither on fossil fuels nor on the exploitation of agricultural crops, but instead uses only sunlight and water as a resource. It remains open, however, whether this approach will prove itself in economic terms. With respect to biological safety, Friedrich saw no major risks in synthetic biology that are not already known from the field of genetic engineering. “There is no requirement for new legal regulations,” she said. Ultimately, synthetic biology is nothing new, but is a continuation of existing biotechnological and genetic engineering methods. In her view, there should only be additions to the existing genetic engineering law with respect to the classification of fully artificial cells (proto-cells).
Ethics Council member Volker Gerhardt, Professor Of Philosophy at the Humboldt University, took a similar line to Friedrich, i.e. that the new research discipline is not a fundamentally new step in science. “The natural sciences have always investigated nature in a causal-analytical process. Ultimately, biology is now following other disciplines such as physics or chemistry, and is applying this principle to living things,” he said. From the perspective of the philosopher, the greatest danger consists only in the possibility that causal-analytic approaches to life will be used to deny humans the illusion of freedom. Andrew Brenner from the Philosophical Seminar of the University of Basel was critical of synthetic biology: “When life is reduced to Lego bricks, then we need a cultural debate because we are being divested of responsibility.” This is because research is developing in the direction of “life begins in as much as it is created.” Thus, human dignity is dependent on the creators, said Brenner.
“As a microbiologist, I kill millions of times a day”
Peter Dabrock, Professor Of Theology at the University of Marburg, and Ethics Council member Eberhard Schockenhoff, Professor Of Theology at the University of Freiburg, also stressed phrases such as “We are playing God” in the context of synthetic biology are neither fair nor appropriate. After all, a creation from a theological point of view would emerge from “nothing”, whereas scientists here are working with things that already exist. Nevertheless, the two still saw potential for an ethical discussion. “A kind of technical life is being created, which we do not really characterise as a living thing,” said Schockenhoff. This must be placed in relation to the handling of higher life forms. Dabrock argued along similar lines, pointing to the fact that the line between life and non-life synthetic biology would become more precarious, and that in the future it would not be easy to clearly differentiate between these two categories. Nevertheless, the ethicist called for a “de-dramaticising” of the issue: “When we hear that something is being synthesized, then everyone says it’s sinister. At which point the creation analogy is applied. It would make more sense to tackle the new responsibilities.” Researcher Friedrich also urged for a degree of pragmatism in the debate. “We must remind ourselves that we are talking about microorganisms. As a microbiologist, I kill millions of times a day.”
However, the ethicist cautioned researchers against making too many promises about the potential of the new discipline. “The aspect of social utility should also not be painted in overly bright colours,” said Schockenhoff. Although science can indeed help to find solutions to societal problems, it is not able to absolve anybody from acting responsibly. “We need a sense of proportion as regards what is really possible,” he emphasised. Dabrock argued in a similar vein: “No one can say how things will be in twenty, thirty years time. It would be more realistic to create scenarios for an assessment of the next five years.”
Overall, at the end of the two-hour event, the members of the Ethics Council appeared satisfied with the debate. “The goals of this Bioethics Forum, namely to encourage debate and public interest, have been well met by the event,” summarised Edzard Schmitz-Jortzig, Chairman of the German Ethics Council, following the event. Schmitz-Jortzig also stated that he could imagine continuing the ethical discourse in a larger context - together with all participants active in the field of synthetic biology.