Team: iGEM Frankfurt -


Ethics and Synthetic Biology

To find out, if we need to bother with ethical questions concerning synthetic biology, we first need to define synthetic biology with its chances and risks. In the course of our work on the project “Steviomyces – it’s gonna be sweet”, we have tried to find a definition for synthetic biology and discussed ethical questions, based on our definition.

Initially we need to ask, whether synthetic biology is a new field within the natural sciences

We hold the opinion, that synthetic biology partly chases new targets, but it is based on many different already existing fields of the natural sciences. Important examples are biotechnology, chemistry, physics, molecular biology, genetics, microbiology and genetic engineering. We think, that all these branches constitute the field of synthetic biology, because methods and procedures were first used in those branches.

If synthetic biology is just a composition of different already known branches, is it even something new?

No, it’s not only a composition. A steady progress within the synthetic biology leads to new targets and methods, which have never been discussed before. New methods arising from synthetic biology are for example BioBricks, minimal cells, proto cells and customized metabolic pathways.

So it is an entirely new branch within the natural sciences?

As explained, it’s not entirely new. It’s hard to find the beginning and the end of synthetic biology. Some aspects belong to genetic engineering, because it is covered by its law. We came to the agreement, that synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary branch, which covers different methods as for example, the work with BioBricks.

Should we ask ethical questions about our work?

If we ask ourselves about the possibility of exploiting those methods and the consequences of exploitation for humanity and nature, it soon became clear, that we need to bother with ethical questions.

Ethic is an important aspect

At the beginning of our project, we discussed to what extent our work has consequences for humanity, nature and the industry. An important question is, whether we destroy the basis of existence for the people, who grow stevia the traditional way, because we could find a procedure which leads to a higher outcome in less time.

Due to the fact that the sweetener stevia has just become legalized in November/December 2011 by the European Union and Germany, the annual estimated consumption can’t be determined. The question arises, if stevia is needed in such an amount, that the production of it in a microbiological way using yeast pays out. Other countries already have many well-known products, which are sweetened with stevia.

Another important aspect leads us to the question about environmental consequences. The plant Stevia rebaudiana, for example, which is cultivated in Paraguay/South America, first needs to be transported to Europe. Looking at the distance between Paraguay and Germany, there is a linear distance of about 10.600 kilometers. Independently, which way of transportation one uses, the pollution by carbon dioxide is quite high. To create an exact comparison between the production using yeast and the cultivation in Paraguay, we still would need more pieces of information. We still lack the data concerning the quantity which is used here, the pollution done during the transport to Germany and the exact carbon dioxide emission during the microbiological production. If we get the pieces of information, we would like to create an exact comparison next year.

Following, the question about the working conditions for the farmers in South America comes up. Do they get paid well or are they exploited? We couldn’t find out anything about their working conditions, still we think that we shouldn’t completely abandon their precious and valuable work. A solution would be cooperation with Fair Trade organizations, which monitor the working conditions of the farmers in South America and offer their stevia at a fair price in Germany. The monitoring of the working conditions is an important aspect in this case.

Furthermore, during our ethical meetings, we’ve engaged in questions, which exceed our topic, but still have a connection to it.

Is genetically modified food without side effects for the people?

At first one must fiddle with the structure of the natural substance and the genetic modified substance. If it is completely the same on the chemical level, could it really harm the consumer? During the procedure of production many problems can occur. For example it is most dangerous if the work isn’t done hygienic and careful (e.g. if there are missing sequences). A new product with new attributes would be created with an unknown effect on the human body. Another risk factor could be caused by the transfer of eukaryotic genes in prokaryotes, as they have a different mechanism in the mRNA processing or another mRNA structure. For example, there is no exon/intron-splicing in procaryotes, as in eukaryotes. In addition, through various recognition sequences or completely different enzymes the same genetic template (DNA) can finally result in an (incorrect) use / processing of RNA resulting in different proteins whose functions / effects are unpredictable. Therefore all these aspects have to be considered if the "right" organisms have to be selected for gene transfer. The consequences could vary from an anaphylactic shock to even death. Thoughtful and careful work is vital, therefore superior authorities steadily monitor such companies. In connection with such actions, the risk of exploitation is lowered, too. On the other hand it is important to enlighten the public about synthetic biology and to improve transparency of genetic engineering. It is important to show the advantages as well as the disadvantages, to give an understanding of our work. We, the iGEM teams can support this duty by preparing information stands, brochures or even by personal contact to the people. In addition to that, it seems really important to have detailed tests of new products and small marginal values for worrying substances to get a legalization. Another intellectual approach relates to the cultivation of genetic engineered plants. It could be possible, that they mix their genetic material with the natural ones, which could again create a new organism. It is crucial to divide the growing areas carefully.