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A philosophical investigation into the introduction of Xenopus as a new chassis in the iGEM contest

“ If we were to take into account service done to science, the frog would deserve the first place. No animal was ever used to make greater or more numerous discoveries in any aspect of science, and still today, without the frog, physiology would be impossible. If the frog is, as it was said, the job of physiology, that is the animal that is the most mistreated by the experimentator, it is the animal which undoubtedly is the most directly associated with his work and his scientific glory”

Claude Bernard, 1865 Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale, Deuxième partie, chap. II, VI

The starting point of our investigation can be summed up in one sentence: “Xenopus is introduced as new chassis in the iGEM contest”. This introduction appeared to the Evry team members as raising important “ethical and maybe legal issues” that should involve the help of a philosopher (or maybe someone else from the humanities). The “need of ethics” is a feeling quite difficult to characterize: we have the idea that something is at stake in what we do but we can’t really formulate what or why. But a tension exists, might exist or should exist, somewhere in the lab or with society. Our sentence, “Xenopus is being introduced as new chassis in the iGEM contest” lead us spontaneously toward very difficult issues concerning animal experimentations and GMOs, tricky topics which often bring sterile debates between pros and contras and other caveats that we don’t want to fall into.

It is important to note that the philosopher brought into the team hadn’t studied moral philosophy or animal ethics before joining the team. In that respect he was, like the the other team members, a learner trying to understand this sort of experimental or applied philosophy (which sounds quite oxymoronic). Problematizing the human practice needed a lot of discussions and debates, as biologists and modelers didn’t really know what they were expecting from the philosopher, and the philosopher didn’t really understand what “human practice” or the “need of ethics” was. After all, if the problem was the legality of the experimentation or drawing the red line of “when does science stop and cruelty towards animals begins” with tadpoles and frogs, it was not a philosopher that was needed but an expert from an ethical committee who could degree: “everything is ethically acceptable, you can proceed to the experimentation”.

Thus, after we made sure that everything planned was ethically acceptable from the point of view of laws, we tried to understand what should be a “human practice project” dealing with Xenopus tropicalis. The main point of these discussions was the following: our human practice should not be about convincing people that what we are doing is great, nor about about laying the foundations of a new company that would use tadpoles for various purposes (it already exists), nor about building scenarios on the propagation of our tadpoles outside the laboratory. It should not either be about trying to rethink categories used by laws on animal experimentation such as “should we extend or restraint the species concerned by the animal category?” or “when does the larvae should be considered as an animal?” etc. We didn’t have time and experience to tackle such issues, we wanted a human practice dealing, as much as possible, with our actual work in the laboratory

What should our human practice be then? Some kind of a road book, the witness of a self-reflection triggered in the team during May/June 2012 on our practice, concepts and disagreements, and on the paths we could open or close for synthetic biology and the iGEM contest. The human practice should also be at the interface of the laboratory and society, articulating each other’s expectations and fears. What we deliver here is the organized outcome of the various discussions and debates we had during the summer, the compromises we tried to build and the issues which stay vivid. A posteriori we noticed that those discussions mainly dealt with the sentence previously quoted, “Xenopus is introduced as new chassis in the iGEM contest”, and especially around the terms of “chassis” and “genetically engineered machine”, which specially caught the attention of traditional biologists and laymen when referring to an animal. These terms appeared to symbolize the divergence of perceptions and ethical sensibilities we had among the team. In our account of this summer investigation we developed four aspects of the introduction of Xenopus in the iGEM contest, aiming at clarifying the range of the engineering metaphors and attitudes applied to living things. The four aspects are the following:

The four aspects are the following:

  1. Why Xenopus is an interesting chassis for synthetic biology? We will have to think through some epistemological principle distinguishing a chassis from a model organism.
    • Xenopus as a model organism
    • Xenopus as a chassis?
  2. Why should we care of animals and human/non-human relationships? We will present some principles of animal ethics and investigate pragmatic approaches giving non-human beings a special attention.
    • Why should ethics concern animals?
    • Animal biotechnology and human/non-human relationships
  3. Why is “chassis” the term of disagreement? When words are not innocents and frogs have a history to be praised.
    • Metaphors aren't innocent
    • Historical praise to the frog as a martyr of science

As a conclusion we expressed the necessity for future igemers to think twice about working with Xenopus : Should we meet Xenopus again in iGEM?

Though these aspects are all related, we tried make the sections readable independently from one another, to give the possibility for readers to start with the part he feels the most (or the less) concerned with.

Last but not least, we have to point out that the story is sometimes biased as opinions of the team can differ from those of the philosopher who wrote this. Though we try reflecting all the opinions of the team members and insisting on the divergences, some conclusions, and the organization of this work, might not be the fruit of a successful compromise.