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Assembling life from building blocks?

As part of its “Bioethics Forum”, the German Ethics Council recently held a meeting in Berlin to inform the public about the fundamentals of synthetic biology and potential ethical problems and consequences in terms of our ideas about life and mankind in general arising from the progress made in this new field of research.

On 24th February 2010, the German Ethics Council organised an evening event for the public as part of its "Bioethics Forum" series. The topic was "Synthetic biology - assembling life from building blocks?" Huge public interest meant that it was standing room only at the 230-seater Leibnizsaal hall at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences.

From gene building blocks to the synthesis of minimal organisms

In her introductory talk, Prof. Dr. Bärbel Friedrich (Institute of Biology/Microbiology at the Humboldt University in Berlin and Alfried Krupp Wissenschaftskolleg Greifswald) explained the goals of synthetic biology and the technologies used. This young area of research is best described as a further development of genetic engineering in which not only individual genes, but entire gene cascades and genomes are manipulated and designed using standardised building blocks in order to create new, previously non-existent biological systems. Milestones in the development of synthetic biology include the synthesis of poliovirus cDNA in 2002 (7,500 basepairs) from oligonucleotides by Eckard Wimmer and his team, and the assembly of Mycoplasma genitalium (580 kb = 580,000 basepairs) from pre-constructed building blocks by Craig Venter in 2008. Prof. Friedrich pointed out that the progress made in gene sequencing technologies means that the entire human genome can be sequenced within 10 hours and costs somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. However, she also stated that the purely chemical synthesis of entire genomes was not really viable using currently available techniques, as it takes around a year to synthesise a hypothetical minimal genome of 110 kb. The fully synthetic production of complete, self-reproducible “protocells” is beyond current capabilities. The application of artificial DNA syntheses involves, amongst other things, the production of specific nucleic acids for vaccines and somatic gene therapy. The generation of a minimal cell, a process Craig Venter promotes in particular, is seen as the potential “chassis” for biosyntheses, including the production of biofuels. Friedrich further highlighted the importance of made-to-measure metabolic pathways generated by what is known as “pathway engineering”, which is mainly used for the production of complex pharmaceutical substances on the basis of the interplay of a large number of genes, such as hydrocortisone, Taxol or the anti-malaria substance artemisinic acid.

Prof. Friedrich is convinced that the safety risks associated with the aforementioned techniques are taken into account in the German Genetic Engineering Law; the German Drug Law also governs the use and authorisation of pharmaceuticals. Artificial minimal organisms cannot, by definition, propagate in nature because they are not adapted to this; in addition, as the synthetic Mycoplasma genitalium bacterium shows, it is possible to include safety mechanisms in the production of such organisms.

Responsibility and human dignity

Wolf-Michael Catenhusen, former Secretary of State and member of the German Ethics Council © German Ethics Council

Wolf-Michael Catenhusen, the moderator of the discussion, explained that the subsequent panel discussion would focus on the ethical and anthropological aspects of synthetic biology and the responsibility of scientists. He told the audience that this topic brought to mind previous conflicts in which he had been involved relating to the acceptance and risks of genetic engineering.

The members of the panel discussion were: Prof. Dr. Volker Gerhardt (philosopher, Humboldt University in Berlin, member of the Ethics Council), Prof. Dr. Andreas Brenner (philosopher, University of Basel, Switzerland), the catholic theologian Prof. Dr. Eberhard Schockenhoff (University of Freiburg, member of the Ethics Council) and the protestant theologian Prof. Dr. Peter Dabrock (University of Marburg).

Andreas Brenner saw the potential of synthetic biology as a problem in terms of risk assessment and highlighted the possibility that it may exacerbate global injustice, as the technology is only available in rich countries. He also discussed the understanding of "life": if by 'life' we extend the meaning from something that grows and develops to something that is made, this has a clear effect on the integrity of nature.

Volker Gerhardt regards synthetic biology as a consequence of a causal-analytical research approach in chemistry, physics and biology, highlighting that in the field of philosophy too, the uniformity of nature leads to uniform investigation methods. Gerhardt believes that the type of causal analysis used in synthetic biology to explain living systems interferes enormously in the self-governing processes of life and represents an attack on human dignity. He concluded that individuals (and more precisely scientists) and society as a whole have to accept responsibility for their acts.

Peter Dabrock was very keen to point out that humans can transgress ethical borders and “play god” by intervening with the building blocks of life. He said that many people are uncomfortable with the blurring of the borders of life and non-life and see this lack of clarity as unacceptable. In his view, open public debate is essential.

Schockenhoff stated that the “playing god” metaphor was not relevant for him as a theologian and regarded the development of synthetic biology as an integral part of the current phase of human evolution. However, he also stipulated that this metaphor reaches a new dimension in synthetic biology and that science does not absolve us from taking responsibility for what we are doing. He said that synthetic biology is unable to solve global problems such as hunger and poverty, adding that the creation of “living artefacts” as disposable entities to fulfil certain human needs impoverishes the idea we have of nature.

The German Ethics Council is an independent board of 26 experts who represent scientific, medical, religious, philosophical, ethical, social, economic and legal concerns in a particular way. The Ethics Council prepares statements on the basis of its own decisions, but can also be commissioned by the German Lower House of Parliament (Deutscher Bundestag) and the German government to prepare statements on their behalf. Its members, who act personally and independently and are bound solely by the terms of reference laid down in the Ethics Council Law, are appointed by the president of the German Bundestag for a period of four years, 50% on the recommendation of the German Bundestag and 50% on the recommendation of the German government. A member of the Ethics Council cannot belong to a legislative body of the German government, any of the German states, the German federal government or a German state government. Members can be reappointed once.

No dramatisation of the situation

Along with other members of the audience, I felt that the debate somewhat drifted away from the original introduction by Bärbel Friedrich (indeed, on the podium next to the other speakers, Friedrich appeared a little lost). It seemed that everybody agreed that there was no point in dramatising the situation and that no immediate action concerning synthetic biology needs to be taken at the present time. Maybe, if anything, the Genetic Engineering Law needs to be amended. The statement that the human organism with all its defence capacities is unable to withstand the exposure to newly created biosystems was countered by the notion that the antibodies of the human immune system are able to recognise a virtually unlimited diversity of biosystems. The idea that the possibilities of synthetic biology could be abused in order to produce organisms or toxins for biological warfare was regarded as dangerous, especially as relevant databases are freely accessible. The speakers did not believe that any additional safety issues need to be taken in the case of synthetic biology over and above measures already taken for safety issues in other areas.

Prof. Dr. Jochen Taupitz, Institute for German, European and International Medical Law, Public Health Law and Bioethics, member of the German Bioethics Council © German Ethics Counicl

There appeared to be a great deal of name dropping and raising of broad fundamental questions at this meeting. Eberhard Schockenhoff referred to people that create synthetic biosystems as "homo creators", reflecting the theological ideas of evolution put forward by Teilhard de Chardin. Schockenhoff also quoted Francis of Assisi as the lover of all creation. Peter Dabrock replied by quoting Albert Schweitzer's "veneration for life", as well as Karl Barth's idea of the term "sin" or the human attempt to enact creation. In Volker Gerhardt's view, Kant provided a framework for the increased responsibility of human beings as new technologies create more power.

Many talks focused on human dignity, which is affected by the changed understanding of "life". Jochen Taupitz's reply to a question from the audience was refreshing: he stated that he did not believe that synthetic bacteria endangered his human dignity. Taupitz also highlighted that newly created organisms did not pose a legal problem since lawyers regard non-human organisms as objects.

The German Ethics Council had already focused on this issue at a meeting on 23rd April 2009, and the conclusion was that there was no further need to address this particular issue. It would appear from this evening's discussion that very little is set to change in the near future.

Further information:
Dr. Ernst-Dieter Jarasch
BioRegion Rhein-Neckar-Dreieck e.V.
E-mail: jarasch(at)bioregion-rnd.de
Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/assembling-life-from-building-blocks