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Snifferomyces Ethics

Through our iGEM project we are called to create a Biobrick of a yeast detecting odors. This not only is part of Synthetic Biology and is therefore prone to ethical considerations, but also due to it's chimeric properties can be called an invention and therefore can be a potential patent target. The question generated is where the line should be placed between finding and investigation and thus the question is raised: Is a chimeric protein an invention?

To begin with and trying to define synthetic biology we come up with the deliberate design of biological systems and living organisms using engineering principles. Synthetic biology is the creation of ‘artificial life’.

Define Patent...

When this 'creation' being seen as a patent and when is considered what sort of methods and genes are patented at this moment and judging the legal verdict about genetic patent cases, the extent to which the genetic patenting will play a role in research, seems limited. Since scientists, most of the time, try to comprehend and research natural phenomena, patent infringement should never occur; and that because natural genes and products can’t be patented. When engineers are researching a modified gene, they have to be able to see to what extent genetic licensing is done in that area. Until now this does not happen and for that reason the patent infringements come as an unwelcome surprise. Licensing for engineering purposes only seems fair, while the use of inventions has to be evaluated. When applications come to the market, and become more and more exposed to the society, the conflict against Genetic Modifications becomes high potential. When such applications have to be evaluated by a board, where all parties with their personal interests are present, a general acknowledgement of a certain application can be made.
A patent on a gene is, however, allowable when one can show the inventive step. A smart way of the assembling matter is what an invention is and when a gene is rearranged to such an extent, that it has a new function which can now be credited. When this invention occurs in order to ease scientific findings, the latter have to pay for it. It has an analogy to transportation: Some people can’t buy a Mercedes. Mercedes cars are faster and provide ease, but there is always the possibility to walk. However, it really should be a non-obvious inventive step for experts too. A characteristic which in some patents can be doubted.

A spread of alternatives, a good idea?

The reaction of scientists to spread alternatives is, according to our opinion, great, and it speeds up the technological progression. Still people who do that, have to keep in mind, that their work is mostly funded by proven applications; thus they may be cutting in their own hands.
New inventions are a great matter, but that does not mean that they are also desired. Adjusting living species, a market-based estimation of value is not enough. The fact that people are willing to pay in order to gain something, does not meant that the desirable object is valuable. Commercial interests and interests of individuals involved, intended or unintended should be weighed. Individual target groups, prone to risks, should be informed and given a voice in the debate of implementing the application intended. This is the only way our desired world stays desired by everyone.

Putting interests on a balance... also not your own

And at this point the ethics factor takes place. Trying to co-live in this world with others, share the sources given to us with respect to ... the creator, the question whether creating new types of life prohibits any rights, is generated. For many years now religions all over the world implicate a belief in a spiritual world (often accompanied with a deity), influencing people's point of view and determining moral principles through a belief and/or cultural system. What religions often try to succeed is the explanatory world view, trying to grasp the world.
Often religions consider living species being created for a reason (for instance, in the Catholic church the task of people is to make the world as if we live in heaven) and directing the insertion or deletion of functions, in these beings, tremendous effect. Most specificallt in our case, by the insertion of smelling genes in yeast, the whole sexual reproduction system of yeast is disturbed. The cause of reproduction therefore has been changed. Inserting designed genes in an organism, even taking the gradual discovery of essential functions into consideration, can be assumed ‘acting as God’ in the respect that there is a significant and directed influence in the target organism and its homologs.
Thus it is called to be considered: 'Where would it be permitted to implement such an invention?’ Additionally, the implementer has to wonder relatively to the possibility of dual use, being aware of consequences which can occur when the invention comes to open and much more considerations. The producer of the invention then has the ethical decision of distribution the invention. Given the ethical viewpoint of the inventor and regulator, he should be aware of the possible damages an invention may cause. It is the implementer that has to be blamed then, as such a product is sold to incapable people or people with malicious intentions.

A practical argument

According to knowledge relatively to evolutionary processes, it is known that many organisms modified in laboratories wouldn’t survive in nature. That simply lies to the fact that the ‘extra genes’ only cost extra energy and there is no gain in maintaining those genes. A yeast cell that has sacrificed its sexual reproduction mechanism to get the function of smelling, just would not survive. Changing species by knocking out functions or introducing extra survival skills however, can lead to more viable species. With these species the risk is greater and therefore the potential consequences, should be considered before their creation. What would it happen when such creator is realised in the nature?
Natural virtue ethics is a part of virtue ethics theorem, that is discussed because it also considers the animalistic behavior of people. Being realistic, decision making doesn’t always go according to a theory, but mostly it occurs more pragmatic. When a decision is made it may contain someone’s moral point of view. This theory provides the proper characteristics of the righteous actor on which everyone should base their actions. Gene Modification seems a hard topic for a virtuous person or group. The topic provides a list of pros and cons, uncertainties and proven concepts, but when the act of gene transfer is righteous cannot be stated only by these facts.

Meeting of Young Minds

Together with the Rathenau Institute, our team organized one of the two debate rounds at the event Meeting of Young Minds. This debate took place on October 5h, the Friday of the Jamboree. The topic of this debate was about the release of research details on the creation of highly transmissible H5N1 (bird flu) in the lab. The expert who were invited to talk during this debate were Prof. Hans Westerhoff, an expert on synthetic biology from the VU Amsterdam, Dr. Koos van de Bruggen, from the workgroup biosecurity KNAW, Dr. Sander Herfst and Dr. Martin Linster, from the Erasmus MC who worked on the H5N1 research, Dr. Robin Pierce, expert on Law and regulations from the TU Delft, Pieter van Boheemen, iGEM 2010 alumnus and part of the Dutch Do-it-Yourself Biotechnology group and Mark Ruitenbeek, chairman of the VWS CDJA (a Dutch youth political party).With different experts we discussed 3 different statements:

• The NSABB made the right choice to give permission for publication of this research.
• Looking at the potential risks, this research should not have started in the first place.
• Scientific research may never be censored.

During this debate the public was asked to vote before and after each statement if they agreed or disagreed with the statement. It was very interesting to see that a few people did change their minds after they heard the discussion between the experts and our team.
The second round the iGEM team of UCL was hosting another debate about a future scenario disaster caused by synthetic bacteria that has mutated, which was also a very interesting debate. Those two debates were also judged by an independent jury, and have chosen our team as the WINNER of the MEETING OF YOUNG MINDS 2012!!!

To get an impression of the debate, click

Ethical considerations during scientific investigation

Our team had extra help from an embedded humanist, named Daan Schuurbiers, who followed the research as a midstream modulation project. Including Daan to the project, the team became also aware of the social sciences of the research. ‘’Midstream modulation asks how research is to be carried out, which is the main business of research, rather than whether a research project should be carried out, which is an upstream policy question. It is a means to evaluate and adjust research decisions in light of societal factors while the research process is taking place.’’ There are 3 different stages in the governance of science and technology, upstream, downstream and midstream modulation, see figure on the right. So by thinking about midstream modulation, this project is connected with the scientific research as well as to the social issues. In this documentary you will see how science will meet the human interest in many ways.

D. Schuurbiers, E. Fisher (2009), Lab-scale intervention. Science & Society Series on Convergence Research, EMBO reports VOL 10 NO 5

Who is Daan Schuurbiers? – Our embedded humanist

Daan Schuurbiers is director of the Pilot Plant (De Proeffabriek), consultancy for responsible innovation. Daan studied chemistry and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam and has a PhD in ethics of technology from Delft University of Technology. His work centers on the social and ethical dimensions of newly emerging science and technologies. Daan's research efforts have focused on the design of new forms of dialogue between social and natural scientists, enhancing socio-ethical reflection in early stages of research. In addition to teaching and research, Daan has extensive experience in project management and consultancy, particularly in the area of dialogue and engagement with science and technology. He has published in academic journals as well as the popular press and has been involved in the organization of a range of teaching courses, master classes, competitions, workshops and other events throughout Europe. He now combines his writing, teaching, research and management skills in his work for the Pilot Plant, advising on ways to encourage reflection in research and to strengthen stakeholder engagement.