Everything is legal, but still, we tried to think about it

Xenopus enters iGEM, becoming a new “chassis” on which the iGEM teams could do synthetic biology. As our project aims at getting SB to an upper scale, the one of a multicellular organism, we believe we have to do a deep investigation on the psychological and ethical questions raised by our project. Thus our human practice should be the occasion to discuss in the lab the various positions team members and society may have concerning animal experimentation and animal biotechnology. We decided to track the changes in our attitude to animal experimentation during our project by doing surveys; we are organizing debates to clarify what we understand by ethics for SB and animal experimentation, presentations to familiarize ourselves with various animal rights theories, think or re-think our relation to non-human beings.

Before we start

As we decided doing SB on tadpoles we were first confronted with the issue of animal experimentation. The few information we had at hand were kind of confusing, are tadpoles considered by law as animals or as embryos? This point could have a strong impact on our work, defining straightly what we could or could not do, where, with who, and if we need specific formations. We can see in the explanatory report of the European Convention for the Protection of Vertebrate Animals used for Experimental and other Scientific Purposes intended line 11 that tadpoles' status have been a matter of debates :

11. Larval forms capable of free life without any foetal or maternal appendices and/or capable of reproduction are covered by the Convention, principally to bring the tadpole and the axolotl within its scope.

More investigation lead us to the following results: according to Nieuwkoop and Faber’s Normal Table (1994) tadpoles feeding can start at stage 45 (around 4 days and 2 hours of development when raised at 22-24°C/71-75F) but there is vitellus in the gut up to stage 48 (around 7 days and an half when raised at 22-24°C/71-75F). Thus, if the engineered tadpole lives more than 4-7 days (depending on rearing conditions such as temperature), we are leaving embryos for animal experimentation. Thanks to the supervising of Nicolas Pollet and the laboratory Metamorphosys we have a legal structure authorizing us to check our results after the 4 days of growth. Therefore we can, according to laws, perform animal experimentation. What does it change for our practice will be a point to investigate.

Before starting experimenting, we had to know a few basics about animal experimentation, which are the national charter on animal experimentation,

Charte nationale portant sur l'éthique de l'expérimentation animale

National charter on the ethics of animal experimentation

and the 3R principle from Russel and Burch 1959 “The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique”:
Replacement: justifying why you needed to do your experiments on animals, why you couldn’t just use cell cultures or computer modeling.

Refinement: denotes experimental approaches that minimize the suffering of laboratory animals
Reduction: alludes to reduction of the number of animal experiments through statistical optimisation and intelligently designed experiment.

These three points had obviously to be taken into account in the final definition of the project and in our practice.

Debates in La Paillasse

Two debates on animal biotechnology and ethics were organized in La Paillasse, involving igemers, DIY amateur and students from humanities. Those debates were of great help for the problematization of our work and illustrating the role of ethics as a mean to state the main issues at stake and emphasizing the points of disagreement between people. Those debates were not aimed at convincing people that what we were doing was good, but rather at focusing on the main point of disagreement, trying to find compromises around the project and emphazising on the broader issues (concerning our habits of consumption and models of production) involved by the engineering of animals.

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First survey

Here are the first questions, asked during the second week of june, before starting experimenting on tadpoles.

A/ What was your reaction when you learned that the project was engineering tadpoles?

B/ Do you feel embarrassed when you have to explain what you are doing to your friends or family?

C/ What is their reaction when you tell them you are engineering tadpoles?

D/ How do you feel about experimenting on tadpoles?

E/ What difference do you make between experimenting on bacteria and on tadpoles?

Second survey

This second survey was sent at the end of the second week of July.

A/ On animal experimentation

1/ Animal experimentation ethics rely on the ability of animals to feel pain and live freely (move and eat). Thus only adult vertebrates (with few exceptions like octopus vulgaris) are concerned by animal experimentation ethics. What do you think of the feeling pain criterion, does it make sense for you?

2/ What do you think of the operational border of four days and a half: the embryo tadpole becomes an animal tadpole. Does it change anything to you?

3/ What difference do you make between animals and model organisms?

4/ To what extent do you think the end justifies the means concerning animal experimentation?

5/ Do you feel we have responsibilities towards animals? And towards nature (like in Gaïa hypothesis)?

6/ Do you think synthetic biology could create a new way of thinking human/animal relations?

7/ Do you imagine this comic with frogs replacing the bacteria (see Drew Endy’s comics)?

8/ Do you think that introducing animals in iGEM should require a distance from iGEM’s spirit: (life is like Lego, engineering life and making biotic games are so much fun, and synthetic biology is more like hijacking chassis than modifying tadpoles)?

B/ More remote philosophical questions

1/ One often hears there is a need of ethics in synthetic biology, what do you understand by ethics, what would you expect from it?

2/ The motto of is “making life better, a part at a time”. How do you understand "better?" To what extent do you think technology is neutral?

3/ A more epistemological question concerning the relation of benchers and modelers, how would you define a good model?