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Definition of „Artificial Cell“ and „Living Machine“ in Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is still a young field of science, which combines areas of engineering, chemistry, biotechnology, computer science and molecular biology. It can be defined by their objectives. This definition encompasses four points. One goal is to gain new scientific knowledge about the processes within cells by trying to build cells from the bottom up or the top down. Another goal is to open up new fields of possible applications for synthetic modified organisms for example in medicine. A key issue involves the creation of novel, non-naturally occurring organisms and structures, as well as modularization and standardization of repeatedly compassable components: BioBricks.

Before discussing the definitions of „artificial cell“ and „living machine“ it is crucial to define to what extend can ever be spoken about a creation of life in synthetic biology. The currently pursued research approaches in synthetic biology do not aspires the creation of life de novo. De novo can be explained from the Latin term “newly create, invent” (Pons). In connection with synthetic biology this implies the creation of new organisms without any foundation in already existing organisms. Up to this day researchers are working with organisms found in nature.

However, in the future scientists attempt to design and manufacture new biological systems, with no origin in nature (Boldt et al. 2009). Creating new life is consequently one main goal of synthetic biology.

There are three different approaches aiming at the goal: the DNA-based device construction, genome-driven cell engineering and protocell creation (O´Malley et al. 2008).

The DNA-based device construction approach engages with the method of modularization, standardization and abstraction of biological constructs (Arkin 2008). Building a collection of biobricks and inserting them in organisms gives these new functions. Creating new species, which do not occur in nature (European Commission 2003).

The genome-driven cell engineering approach aims to create a so-called „minimal cell“. Parts of the cell should be reduced to a minimal extend, leaving only necessary properties for survival. Minimizing the genome after the top-down-approach pursues the creation of an organism as a „cassis“. A variable frame where every BioBrick can be introduced into the genome (Gibson et al. 2008).

The protocell creation approach seeks to build a new organisms „de novo“ after the „bottom-up-approach” (Luisi et al. 2006). Unlike the two other approaches the protocell-creation is not guided by an archetype (Boldt 2008).

These three approaches raise different ethical questions.

The ethical implications using the appellation of „living machines“ and „artificial cells“ will be elucidated. Focusing on the implicated hybrid-character of such designation, with regards of the relation between machines and living organisms and the deceptive idea of an “artificial cell”. Also the acquaintance arising from the determination between “artificial cell/living machine” is illuminated.

The term „living machine“ - a hybrid between machine and living organisms

Machine originates from the Latin term „machina“ and means „tool, artificial equipment“ and is defined as „a piece of equipment with moving parts that is designed to do a particular job [...]“ (Pons; Oxford dictionary 1884).

It follows that machines are designed for a particular purpose, according to the plans of humans and adopt a predetermined, defined and by itself immutable function. Machines are per definition not in the position to plan and conduct their behavior autonomically. They cannot change actions by themselves and can only operate in a certain way with the environment. Crucial characteristic for a machine is the autonomy but not the material, organic or inorganic (Deplazes 2011).

In contrast to the heteronomous machine stands life itself. The discussion about the concept of life in synthetic biology is a complex and wide-ranging field, where the difficulties of a definition lie just in the diversity of life. It is noteworthy that the researchers themselves are trying to find a suitable explanation, as it is an objective of synthetic biology to create new life (Deplazes / Huppenbauer 2009). Here is a brief description how researchers are trying to define life or alive.

After a minimal definition each organism is alive, which has an independent genome, has a cellular membrane structure and a sustainable and autonomous replication system (Endy 2005; Toepfer 2005).

The autopoiesis theory acts on a philosophical assumption when developing a concept of life. Living organisms differ from non-living organisms by "[the fact that they are] the product of their organization […]. There is no separation between producer and product. Being and doing [of an] autopoietic unity is inseparable, and this constitutes their specific type of organization" (Maturana, Varela 1987). Consequently, the products of synthetic biology would not been self-caused, but organized externally by humans. Consequently, following this train of thought, scientists will never succeed in producing an autopoietic system synthetically. The human as manufacturer of the genome states himself as the creator of the organism. The postulated unit of producer and product can never be succeeded. The organism remains heteronomous by the determination of the genome by man.

This logical problem with the autopoiesis-theory in synthetic biology leads to restricted and modified applicability of the theory. Thus, the following discussion will concentrate on the definition of life first illustrated and includes the autopoiesis theory in restricted form, as this will gain importance in synthetic biology for future developments.

After consideration of the machine concept and definitions of life it is evident that the organisms named "living machine" are by no means machines but living organisms. Today synthetically engineered organisms satisfy the minimum requirements of reproduction, metabolism and evolution. The term "machine" emphasizes the intended machine-like function. The organisms are alive but perform a machine-related purpose.

The claim of the synthetic biology is to create living organisms, which act simultaneously as a machine. The synthetic biology changes the definitions of living organisms and aims to abolish the separation between life and machine. It follows that the discussion with this term is not regarding the definition, but rather an ontological problem.

The term suggests a utilization of life with the pure focus on the control and goals of the humans.

On the one hand the term "living machine" generates an ethical problem, for the reason that it reduces living organisms to their purpose and implies a total control of created existence. Man breeds and keeps animals for the purpose of procuring food, which includes utilization and control of these creatures. There is an analogy to the organisms of the synthetic biology, however in synthetic biology humans appear as self-creators. Synthetic biology aims the creation of new organisms, in which the structures and properties are artificially defined by man whereas breeding and keeping animals is still subordinated through evolution.

On the other hand, "living machine" belies the fact that, due to a lack of understanding any intervention in the genome can indeed provide the desired functionality, but might also have not foreseeable effects. A feature of living cells is the interaction with the environment. It is difficult to assess the impact such interaction for the environment is as expected.

Furthermore, it has to be noted that currently it is possible to manipulate and utilize unicellular organisms, however in the future it is also conceivable to engineer higher organisms. The designation of "living machines" then abates these creatures to their pure function.

The concept of "living" and "non-living" organisms create a hybrid of both and does not answer which properties apply to these exactly. This might implicate associations about properties and facts which do not match the actual conditions in these organisms. Furthermore, the linguistic imprecision could have an effect on future ethical debates since it can open up possibilities for interpretation.

This has, under the assumption of a future "minimal cell" the result of changing perspective on life itself. The clear distinction between animate and inanimate is repealed, life as a laboratory adjustable process is demystified.

Artificial or artificially generated - The „artificial cell“

An often used term in synthetic biology besides "living machines" is "artificial cell" or "synthetic cell". Both terms mean artificial, constructed, pseudo and pose as the opposite of "natural" (Oxford dictionary).

It should be noted what is exactly characterize as an "artificial" cell, as the term has no clear semantic boundaries. The laboratory-designed organisms are made as well as natural cells of organic material and have cellular structures. “Natural" cell carry the DNA or RNA necessary for reproduction, evolution, and metabolism information as well as the “artificial cell”.

The artificiality of the cells lies precisely in the laboratory completed synthetic production method, which is why they can be labeled as "genetic artificiality" (Birnbacher 2006).

The ambiguous and imprecise formulation can lead, as much as the phrase "living machine" to ethical problems. It is indicated that the synthetic modified organisms differentiate from "natural" organisms and are in contrast "unnatural". Splitting organisms in these two groups leads to an apparent dissection of the concept of life, even though both are "natural."

Again, as with the distinction between "living" and "non-living" this leads the division between "natural" and "artificial" to an altered prospect on life and a problematic classification and grading of the unit life (Boldt / Müller 2009).


Thinking ahead, the possibilities of creating new organisms through manipulation, reduction and modularization leads to man as a kind of "Creator". This opens up new ethical, social and philosophical areas of conflict. In this article the problem arising from the use of terms like "living machines" and "synthetic / artifical cell" were highlighted.

Particularly problematic is in our eyes, that there are several types of interpretation.

A science which has the possibility to improve the lives of people with new, low-cost and effective methods of environmental protection, the treatment of diseases and many other areas, should provide an unambiguous basis for an informed discussion. The fact that terms imply false and failing to reach full potential scenarios, prevents a qualified debate on opportunities and risks in this field. An example of this can be seen in the genetic engineering debate, in which, through ignorance of the topic often irrational fears are raised which prevents a professional informed debate on this matter.

It is crucial to apply a definition, which is without ambiguity and reflects real possibilities and boundaries of this field. A proposal for a solution could be "mechanical living organism", through which the problem of the misleading hybrid character of terms is dissolving.


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