The AcCELLerator


To discuss ethical questions about biosafety we interviewed Dr. Joachim Boldt, who put a special focus of his research to synthetic biology regarding ethical and philosophical as well as security and safety facets. Dr. Joachim Boldt is currently head of the Institute for Ethics and History of Medicine at the University of Freiburg. He is surveyor for the ethics committee of the German government regarding synthetic biology. A list of his recent publications can be found here

What are your personal concerns about safety in synthetic biology? To what extent do scientists have to think about biosafety?

To answer this in detail, we will have to wait and see into which direction research develops and which fields of application are exploited. But broadly speaking, the high depth of intrusion into the genomes of organisms of synthetic biology poses new safety questions. Here, the catchword “creation of life” often appears, which is not completely true but also indicates that synbio is able to modify genomes in a way which was not possible by classical genetic engineering. This brings up new questions and concerns regarding safety issues.

Why does especially synthetic biology evoke the necessity to address biosafety questions in addition to the ongoing debate on the safety of genetic engineering?

This is something which correlates with the depth of intrusion - meaning the distance to the original organism is even greater in synbio than in genetic engineering. In genetic engineering, there always exists a very well-known organism for comparison. Thus, it is possible to say that the genetically engineered version of this organism will behave in the same ways and only differ in in some minor respects. But when synthetic biology has the realistic vision of a whole new genome being redesigned and inserted into a bacterial cell, the question arises how we can evaluate how these organisms will behave and develop. Here we are lacking reference values and this is a difference to conventional genetic engineering - and therefore a new level regarding biosafety questions.

Often hypothetical scenarios are constructed and used to elucidate safety questions. Can this debate reflect the reality of research?

When specific research projects are evaluated, the general prospect of replacing a whole genome can be neglected, as it is not relevant or doesn’t have to be relevant. The assessment of definite research projects is really depending on details and in the case of doubt there are already many standards and percepts which can be applied to address safety. But there are also research projects which are not critical in terms of safety questions. Nevertheless, it is important to keep an eye on future developments in research. Here, scientists also have to be aware of safety questions which may arise not only from what they are doing right now but also from future steps of their research. This is a gradual process but we have to always be one step ahead of what currently happens.

Do you have specific recommendations what can be done to raise the acceptance of synthetic Biology or to close the gap between hypothetical scenarios and actual research?

On the one hand, the acceptance in the population and ethics is really depending on the field of application. When the application belongs to the field of health and medicine there is great acceptance because there is hardly any doubt that it will be a beneficial application. Moreover many rules for clinical studies already exist which serve here as safety regulations. On the other hand, there is poor acceptance for application in the field of agro- and plant biotechnology. Here is the question if we should refrain from planting organisms in nature or if we should concentrate on promoting “contained uses”. This again demands a gradual course of action in which we will have time to learn and understand. We are not supposed to take big steps but should first explore the application closely under known conditions. Synthetic biology tends to take great leaps but this not advisable in terms of safety issues.

Could you explain how terms like “living machine” may affect safety questions or acceptance of synthetic biology?

This term can be found even in the iGEM abbreviation: genetically engineered machine, in this case standing for (bacterial) cells. Here two very different areas are combined. On the one hand, the automatic and computer controlled world and on the other hand, natural life with evolutionary processes. Synthetic biology lives from the engineering spirit and gets fueled by the ideas of standardization and modularization. But regarding organisms, new risks are arising which are not known in electro techniques. These are mostly long term effects because organisms per se are objects which change and develop over a period of time, which is called evolution. The ability to adapt to new niches, something electronics is not able to, evokes certain risks, which we should be aware of. It is important not only to be engineers with a circuit diagram for the cells but to also to act as developmental and evolution biologists reflecting the possible development of the organism.

Does the term “living machine” suggest controllability which conceals eventual safety concerns?

Yes, I think this is true. Radios can get broken but we can find out what the reason was and fix it. For living organisms there is no such controllability. This is because of the evolutionary processes which can be attributed to self-organization, a process we are not able to control completely.

Is it necessary to change the definition of “living machine”?

There are two possible interpretations of this term. When people are thinking of “living machines” they might either assume everything can be controlled because we are talking about machines, or people might infer that scientists are taking life not seriously because they are calling something a living machine. The second possibility might convey the impression scientists are disrespectful to life and overestimate themselves. I would recommend distinguishing between a machine and a living organism: a cell or an organism does not become a machine even when its whole genome is replaced by a synthetically constructed one.

Where does synthetic biology stand in 50 years when safety issues have been removed?

This is very hard to say. From an ethical point of view I hope synbio brings social and individual benefit. But this depends highly on which field of application money is spent on. Unfortunately this is not always where we would think it is necessary - such as for fighting malnutrition - but where potential capital is available. This might be the cosmetic-industry for example. I hope synthetic biology will be working on sustainable processes which can possibly replace chemical manufacturing processes.

This is something where the iGEM community contributes a lot of innovative ideas in various areas of application! Thank you very much for the nice conversation.

Thank you too.

Dr. Boldt and Laura discussing ethical and philosophical questions regarding synthetic biology

Dr. Boldt and Laura enjoying the discussion