The Challenge of Synthetic Biology

Image Source: The New York Academy of Sciences

The creation of a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome is projected as a great breakthrough of science in the 21s century. On 19th May, biologist Craig Venter and his colleagues announced their great achievement to the rousing reception of the scientific community. Craig Venter with his usual air of arrogance declared that the breakthrough will redefine the way we view life.

This event raises many very deep questions for us. It has a power to alter our views of biological life and its place in the Universe. It is indeed an important milestone for humanity for it demonstrated that we can not only read the DNA, modify and replicate it but effectively write it to. Writing a DNA molecule means we are able to design a totally new or non-existent genetic information.1 This paper attempts to understand the deepest consequences of the breakthrough of Craig Venter and his colleagues by locating it within the larger context of our quest for synthetic life.

The discipline has captured the interest of policymakers, science funders and the media, and is beginning to attract interest from bioethicists. We shall first deal with the history of human quest for synthetic biology. This helps us to understand the meaning and goals of synthetic biology. Next we examine the practice of synthetic biology as well as its applications with a special reference to bio-safety and security issues. Finally we shall end with a reflection on ethics of synthetic biology.

1. Understanding Synthetic Biology

The word synthetic Biology first came in currency in 1980 when it was used by Barbara Hobom to refer to the bacteria that had been genetically engineered using recombinant DNA technology. In the early days the term was used to capture what can be called bio-engineering.2 In the year 2000 the term acquired a new nuance when Eric Cool used to describe the synthesis of unnatural organic molecules that function within the living systems.3 In the broadest sense it is used with reference to the efforts to redesign life. It attempts to recreate in the unnatural chemical systems the emergent properties of living systems.

1.1 The Dawn of Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology aims at constructing living systems not found in nature and is rapidly developing as a new branch of Biotechnology promises many breakthroughs that will certainly have a high impact on our society. The glamorous promises as well as possible tragic risks of this new science are steadily becoming prominent.

Most accounts of synthetic biology take place in the recent past. Some trace its origins in the 1990s while others stretch them to the 1970s.4 We can notice that the idea that synthetic engineering based approach to life will serve as an ultimate font of biological knowledge and that such knowledge could be directly applied for human purposes is a recurrent theme in 20th century biology. But the founding of the Carnegie Institution’s Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor in 1904 is cited as the entry point into the twentieth century story of life by design.5 In his inaugural speech, renowned Dutch Botanist, Hugo de Vries spelled the vision when he said evolution is to be an experimental science, which must first be controlled and studied and then conducted and shaped to the use of humanity.6 At a time of his speech, the prospect of gaining mastery and control on the process of evolution and its subsequent use for human benefits sounded like a climb of an improbable mountain.

While the synthetic approach to life was underway at the Cold Spring Harbor, the earliest reference to the term synthetic biology seems to come from the French professor of medicine, Stephane Leduc (1853-1939). Although his views were contested, his attempt to experimentally use synthesis as means to understand basic biology of organic growth and morphology puts him in a recognizable affinity with the goals of synthetic biology today. Thus we can see that Ludacris was a firm believer in the epistemic value of synthesis and he hoped to understand natural life even as he strove to produce artificial life-like forms.7

While Leduc focused his work on proximate questions of form and shape (morphology), Irish Physicist John Butler Burke working at the Cavendish Laboratory turned to synthesis as a means of understanding the nature of life itself. He effectively raised the notorious question, “could life be produced from non-life? Burke conducted a sensational experiment that came to be referred to as the creation of life in a test tube. It involved plunking a bit of radium in a Petri dish of bouillon and the result was the production of cellular forms that were, if not quite living, at least life-like. He was a firm believer in the life-giving power of radium and thought that the what he had produced (radiobes) were somewhere on the borders of life and not life and his contemporaries labeled his synthetic results (growths) as artificial life. Thus, somehow he not just succeeded in mimicking life but helped to explore more fundamental properties of life like its origin and history.8

Yet he seems to be satisfied with the understanding of the phenomenon of life and the dream of the control and mastery of that phenomenon is to the credit of the German –American Physiologist, Jacques Loeb (1859-1924). He is said to have said “we have drawn a great step nearer to the chemical theory of life and may see ahead of us the day when a scientist, experimenting with chemicals in a test tube, may see them unite and form a substance which shall live and move and reproduce itself”.9 He believed that the very fact that creation of life was a non-natural act made it necessary for the scientists to work to create it in the laboratory and the success in this venture will give science the power to reconstruct life in accordance with scientific reasoning. Hence, he christened his theory of a chemical basis for evolution as the development of synthetic physiology.10

But this form of engineering life did not sit pretty with many of the traditional biologists of that time. They regarded what Leduc, Burke, and Loeb were doing was something interesting but not biology. Thus for instance, in 1928 David Star Jordan, scathingly said “ thus one sitting in his study room may blithely construct ‘synthetic protoplasm’ by ‘juggling of words’ or by combination of ideas from physics and chemistry” of the newfangled attempt to engineer life.11 Moreover many progressive agriculturalists, breeders and geneticists were more interested in the modification of the protoplasm already in hand towards greater ends than in the construction of synthetic protoplasm. Hence, experimentation in biomimicry, artificial life or even primitive life did not attract the biologists as well as those funding research. Yet in their quest for better varieties of organism they indirectly promoted the engineering approach in biology.

1.2 Genetic Engineering and Synthetic Biology

In the 1930s developments in genetic engineering offered new opportunities towards the realization of our quest for ‘synthetic new species’. It was greeted as a revolution that will allow us to ‘Sculpt’ new life forms that would serve humanity. That is why we can see why Vavilov declared that he wanted to be ‘directing the evolution of cultivated plants and domestic animals according to our will. In the future man will be able to synthesize life forms completely unimaginable in nature’.12 Interpreting Marx he said ‘before scientists used to study the world to understand the world, we study it in order to change it’.13 Thus a Marxist cum engineering philosophy became central to the work of scientists who were seeking new synthetic life forms.

In the middle of the 20th century, mills experiment Stanley Miller’s famous experiment14 (1953) into the origin of life, and experiments of Arthur Kornberg15 and others concerned with the artificial synthesis of DNA. Both categories of the experiments were described as approaching the creation of life in the laboratory. Later with the discovery of recombinant DNA technologies this appeared to become real soon. The brave new world anticipated by these techniques was thought to be the world of synthetic biology. But by mid 1970 the term synthetic biology disappeared from usage as a general term and the term genetic engineering came to the fore.16 But by early 2000 years, we can find the reemergence of the term synthetic biology and was used to distinguish more a engineering-based approach to life from earlier genetic engineering (which was thought to be just breeding).

Emerging around the new millennium, contemporary ‘synthetic biology ‘was presented as the re-thinking of the whole of Biology’.17 The echo of this movement can be traced in the mid 1990s that looked to create artificial life. With the developments in bio-computing the quest for digital life became central. Biological organisms live in a material medium and some scientists boldly think that this medium can be changed. These mediums may come to resemble material medium in which and out of which the biological organism grows and so such a distinction may look indiscernible. Leading the direction of this research, scientists Knight of MIT came up with the idea of a Biobrick standard biological part and engineer Dew Endy described the new approach as ‘open source biology’ indirect reference to the open source software movement.18

Synthetic Biology today has come to be known by other names such as constructive biology, natural engineering or intentional biology. But all these labels prove to be insufficient to capture the complexities and multiple roots of this field of science. Synthetic Biology strives to design biological systems that control their behaviour and this way wishes to overcome the drawback of genetically modified organisms who often display wild, unpredictable and random behaviour in our environment. Hence, synthetic biology is almost the opposite of random applications of biology as technology.

Great Strides have been made to understand and bring about the growth of synthetic biology and a series of conferences have already been organized. The first was in the early summer of 2004 at MIT and came to be called ‘synthetic biology 1.0’.19 The second 2.0 Conference20 was held at the University of California, Berkeley in June 2006 and the 3.0 conference21 was held in June 2007 at ETH in Zurich, Switzerland demonstrating that synthetic biology had already expanded in different directions. Following the conference, many several schools began to emerge in Europe. These conferences not only allowed the expansion of the project of synthetic biology but also brought about profound reflection on the vital issues of biosafety and biosecurity, of bio-terror and bio-error, as well as questions around the intellectual property rights as well as commercialization of the field.22

India is also catching up with the development in synthetic biology. The national center for biological sciences in Bangalore has succeeded in engineering biology to make e-coli behave as humans want them. Indian students showed great excitement of their participation in the international genetic engineered machine contest at the MIT in Cambridge. Many say that synthetic biology will change the way we generate energy, manufacture of pharmaceuticals, materials and even computers. Thus our country is in the best position to launch the same Contribute to the applications of synthetic biology.23

2. The Domain of Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology is a field that strives to create artificial cellular or non-cellular biological components with the functions that cannot be found in the natural environment as well as systems made of well-defined parts that resemble living cells and the known biological properties via different architecture. It is an interdisciplinary science that extends a wide range of scientific, engineering, and computational knowledge towards the biological systems. O’Malley along with others have identified three main research areas of synthetic biology: DNA-based device construction, Genome- driven cell engineering and proto-cell.24 More developments have allowed us to take synthetic biology in the direction that gives us what has been called unnatural components and synthetic microbial consortia.

2.1 DNA-based Device Construction

At the most basic level of the cell construct, various proteins and enzymes encoded in the DNA sequence form signaling and metabolic pathways to perform biological functions. The manipulation of such pathways by addition or removal of DNA sequences with known behaviors can produce new properties which are more desirable than the original ones. Today DNA based studies have diverged and we have two main streams of its applications in synthetic biology: the construction of DNA Circuits based on reusable parts and manipulation of metabolic pathways.

2.1.1 DNA Circuits
Synthetic biology is busy engineering DNA parts with predefined functions. It aims at the construction of standardized modules which can be applied to a wide range of cell hosts. Genetic circuits can be seen as logic gates which functionally resemble electronic components. The output is controlled by each genetic logic gate and there are unaccountable ways to associate different circuits into functional units.25 One of the best examples of designing in the biological system is MIT’s international Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition in which many new applications of biological logic gates have been conceptualized.26 Thus we have genetic switches activated and deactivated by ultraviolet light, cell cultures performing computation or numerical addition, microbes capable of image retention, biological sensors for the detection of Toxic aromatic compounds or arsenic that pollute the environment. Research is still centered on the standardization and modularization of the DNA circuits so as to arrive at a’ plug and play’ stage.

2.1.2 Synthetic Metabolic Pathways
The metabolic and genomic properties of many living organisms have evolved with time under selective pressures from their natural environment to reach their current states. Artificial interference in these organisms can potentially create new functions in existing organisms or even new organisms to carry out desirable tasks. Nowadays it is possible to modify the property of an organism by inserting genes from foreign species or synthetic sequences.27 Thus, synthetic biology attempts to use de novo DNA synthesis methods that are accurate and efficient. These synthetic metabolic pathways have made significant contributions in the generation of Drugs and other pharmacological compounds, and production of biofuels.

2.2.2 Protocell
The quest for a synthetic minimal cell which has the simplest possible components is another research area in synthetic biology that deserves our attention. The minimal cell is described as one that has the simplest possible components to sustain reproduction, self –maintenance and evolution. The Bottom up Approach
One can notice that the search for such a minimal cell has been attempted in two directions: one strives to build a cell from scratch using biophysical, biochemical and biological components. This research dreams of creation of living cells out of artificial elements. At the moment we have created cell sized liposomes that can synthesize proteins.28 But these liposomes are far from being a self-reproducible system, living a gap to be filled by further studies. The Top Down Approach
Instead of devising the simplest possible life form from scratch, many studies have attempted to simplify an existing micro-organism until it contains only essential and characterized genes and functional elements. The slimming of the genome is down to developing a chassis to house various genetic circuits, metabolic pathways, or protein synthesis mechanisms. We have already succeeded in reducing the genome of two commonly used bacterial systems E. coli and Mycoplasma Genitalium.29

2.2. 3 Unnatural Components
The possibilities of accepting heterologous genes in order to confer functionalities to engineered cells is considered more remote and the other possibility to engineer proteins from scratch has found favor among the scientists. Biosensors, biomedicine, and smart polymers are potential applications of the engineered proteins. The future of synthetic biology is seen in protein synthesis by many experts. There are twenty common amino acids virtually present in all living organisms. the infinite number of combinations using 20 canonical amino acids studied by computer programs generating sequences that are expected to result in chains that unfold into three dimensional structures with desirable catalytic or structural capacities. Although there are only twenty amino acids, they nearly support all of the metabolic functionality found in nature but there are possibilities of introducing unnatural amino acids in polypeptides. Currently over 50 unnatural amino acids have been incorporated into the proteins. Although this incorporation of the unnatural amino acids into the proteins is highly successful yet scientists say that there are some serious limitations. This inclination to the artificial proteins does not mean that scientists have left their quest for the generation of unnatural genes. Indeed, unnatural DNA base pairs provide an alternative and potentially inheritable way to add a wide range of unnatural amino acids into the proteins.30

2.2.4 Synthetic Microbial Consortia
There is an emerging field of synthetic biology which focuses on the design of cell-to-cell communication across different microbial species. Today there is an attempt to bring about communication between two or more simple organisms. Already several artificial communications have been demonstrated in cultures of mixed organisms.31

2.3 Applications of Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is set to drive industry, research, education and employment in the life sciences in a way that might rival the computer industry’s development during the 1970s to the 1990s. While traditional biotechnology has had some notable achievements in several of these areas, they have generally been slow and expensive to develop. By potentially re-organizing biotechnological development in line with the principles of synthetic biology, research & development are likely to proceed much faster and in a much more organized way. Due to the fundamental change in methodology that it entails for the modification of living organisms, synthetic biology might fulfil many of the promises that traditional biotech is still struggling to fulfil, in such important areas. Many scholars teach that synthetic biology promises great applications for health, energy and environment.

2.3.1 Biomedicine
Synthetic biology promises to give us complex molecular devices for tissue repair and regeneration. One of the most fascinating possibilities for synthetic biology could be the development of small macromolecular assemblies composed of a sensor and a group of enzymes, which could be used to sense damage in for example blood vessels and proceed to repair them by dissolving plaques and stimulating endothelial regeneration. It also said that we have already produced a system that has a sensor that can monitor the level of blood sugar in patients with diabetes and release insulin accordingly. Similarly scientists have developed artificial kidneys that will function in vivo and conduct in vivo dialysis.

2.3.2 Synthesis of Biopharmaceutical
The development of smart drugs is another important application of synthetic biology. A smart drug is an inactive form which has a diagnostic module that is programmed with medical knowledge; it is capable of directly sensing molecular disease indicators and making a diagnostic decision. This decision is then translated into drug activation. Ideally, a smart drug will be delivered to a patient like a regular drug; however it will only become active in cells affected by a disease.

Development of vector therapy that includes the development of viruses that can target specific cells and deliver healthy genes that can heal or target the diseased cell and destroy it. Synthetic biology provides us the possibility of developing personalized medicine. These drugs will be adapted in their mode of action (for example via specific glycosylation patterns), formulation, dosage, and release kinetics to the specific requirements of the patient. There is still another possibility that seems to challenge our imagination which says that we will be able to modify human cells, like stem cells, to achieve new functions not present in our body, and to introduce them back into the donor. One could think of cells involved in the immune response being programmed to recognize specific viruses or bacteria and target them in a more efficient way than our existing immune system does.

2.3.3 A Sustainable Chemical Industry
We require more environmentally friendly production of chemicals. As the world’s fossil fuel reserves are coming scant, chemistry needs a new raw materials base. Synthetic biology might be the tool that could enable us to fight this crisis. One can hypothesize a set of organisms that reflect in their synthetic capacity the ‘product tree’ of today’s organic chemical industry: first, microorganisms that produce efficiently the bulk chemicals that supply today’s raw materials, and progressing to microorganisms that make ever more complex chemicals from these ingredients in ever more complicated combinations of synthetic pathways.

2.3.4 Environment and Energy Bioremediation
The induced modification of bacteria and other microorganisms such as fungi to eliminate toxic waste from soil has been a Holy Grail in remediation technologies for many years. Improved abilities of degradation capabilities as well as adaptation strategies within ecosystems might bring this dream into our reach soon.

2.34.2 Production of Energy
Just as our societies need to seek alternatives to fossil fuels as raw materials for bulk chemical production, so they must replace such sources, ideally with renewables, for energy generation. Again, synthetic biology can help to make this transition possible and dependable. The challenge is to design a set of converging chemical pathways that allow an essentially quantitative conversion of readily available solar energy and natural or waste materials to (for example) biofuels

2.3.5 Smart Materials and Biomaterials
There are several ways in which engineered proteins, viruses and organisms might assist in the development of new materials that might have diverse applications.

3. The Ethics of Knowledge and Synthetic Biology

Today Knowledge is transformed into technology and technoscience is controlled by the market forces. Hence, the logic of means (the quest for the maximum profit) and not the logic of ends,or purpose has become the raison d’etre of knowledge enterprise. The market principle that naively believes that the pursuit of economic efficiency is automatically linked to the common good. It is in this context we raise the biosecurity or biosafety issues raising the alarm of playing God.

3.1 Biosafety and Biosecurity Issues in Synthetic Biology

Craig Venter seems to suggest that there are no dangers posed by the synthetic bacteria generated by him and his colleagues in May 2010. Yet we cannot be blinded by the opinions of celebrity scientists. WHO (2004) perceives bio-safety as the prevention of intentional exposure to the pathogens and toxins or their accidental release, while biosecurity is the prevention of loss or theft, misuse, diversion or intentional release of pathogens and toxins. Synthetic Biology raises actuated bio-safety challenges that may arise at various levels at various times in the development of the field. It is in this regard that European scientists have launched what is called a symbiosafe project. Scholars have identified three main areas that seem to be relevant biosafety issues in synthetic biology: Improving risk assessment, establishing biosafety engineering and diffusion to amateur biologists.

3.1.1 Risk Assessment
Proper risk assessment techniques are required in order to assess the risks involved in any biotech activity in order to decide whether or not a new technique or application is safe enough for the laboratory. The security assessment becomes even more mandatory for the commercialization of the products of synthetic biology. Some scholars hold that risk assessment methods of bio-tech are inadequate to deal with synthetic biology and they propose new methods only for synthetic biology have to be devised.

3.1.2 Biosafety Engineering
Biosafety attempts to minimize the unintended consequence in biological systems developed by synthetic biology. Some regard synthetic biology as the ultimate biosafety tool. Safety engineering is already developed in many engineering disciplines. Safety engineering employs specialized scientific knowledge and principles to identify and eliminate hazards. Safety engineering assures that a system works even when the parts of it fail. This kind of fault –tolerant system or a fail-safe system is very much needed in synthetic biology because of the evolutionary potentials of all biological systems.

3.1.3 Diffusion to the Amateur Biologists
Synthetic biology moves to what can be called as DO-IT-YOURSELF-BIOLOGY. But this would increase the number of bio-hackers or amateur biologists. Their activity can pose unprecedented dangers to them as well as the community and the environment around them. This makes it mandatory for the diffusion of the biosafety principles in our society.

3.2 Synthetic Biology and Playing God

Concerns about playing God have already been raised in the context of biotechnology and genetic engineering and synthetic biology raises even greater fears of us playing God. It is feared that synthetic biology might allow humans to play God in qualitatively different ways. Humans have long been able to exert some influence on the genetic make-up of future beings. The selective breeding, genetic engineering and synthetic biology promise to overcome the constraint dictated by evolution on us.

3.2.1 Religious voices
From the religious point of view the concern is that humans are literally usurping the role of some higher being or god. This worry is often raised about attempts to modify natural genomes, so it would be surprising if it were not raised about attempts to design entirely new genomes.

3.2.2 Secular Voices
The secular tone of the concern is typically seen with humans failing to recognize their own limitations, for example, by overestimating their ability to control complex ecosystems

3.3 Synthetic Biology and the Meaning of Life 

There are two directions of research in synthetic biology that apparently complicates the meaning of life. We shall also deepen this reflection a little later in the paper when we deal with the persistent ethical issues emerging from synthetic biology.

3.3.1 Creation of Life from the Scratch
The fact that synthetic biology aims at the creation of life from scratch from non-living, inorganic matter raises the question of the meaning of life itself. It seems as if now humans might be able to take the role that is assigned to God. It seems that humanity is attempting to usurp the functions of God or is it that humans are overstepping their limitations. The promoters of synthetic biology retort that they are only taking upon the functions that are falsely attributed to God. Others say that it does not go against God as it remains within God given desire to improve human condition with the materials and intellectual resources that God has given us. No synthetic biologist will ever be able to create something out of nothing.

3.3.2 Building of Living Machines
It seems to promote the blurring of the distinction between life and machine. The living machines seem to fall between living things and machines. This again complicates the meaning of life.

4. Ethical Issues Concerning Synthetic Biology

There are there types of ethical issues associated with synthetic biology: method-related, application-related and distribution related. The first category deals with the aims, procedures, and methodologies, the second category concerns social impact that certain applications and products may have in the future and the third category takes up the questions of access and ownership.

4.1 Method-related Questions:

Synthetic biology uses a diversity of methodologies32 and some of them overlap with biotechnology and tradition chemistry but the common ground that unites all of them is its objectives. The fact that synthetic biology aims at designing new forms of life following human architecture and plan per se raises certain ethical questions. These questions chiefly concern the relationship between humans and other living organisms and the moral status of the products of synthetic biology.

4.1.1 Loss of the Meaning of Life
Living organisms have been products of nature even when modified by breeding or genetic engineering since their overall body plan and metabolism still follows to a certain extent the natural design resulting entirely from nature. The fact that humans can synthesize life following their own design as already done by Craig Venter raises the question of the meaning of life. Today we can not only read the book of life or manipulate it but we can write the book of life. Hence, ‘who owns life?’ becomes an important question as the dignity and sanctity of life gains center stage in the context of debate.

This approach also blurs the distinction between living organisms and machines. However humans can control the machine in the course of its entire existence which may not be the case with the artificial cell. We also believe that living organisms have intrinsic value and hence, the question of the moral status of the artificial organism.

4.1.2 Living Machines and the Second Coming of the Mechanistic Philosophy of Nature
The bioengineering branch of synthetic biology attempts to transform biology into an engineering discipline by systematizing genetic engineering, based on standardized parts at the DNA level, parts that can be combined into modules which themselves can be converted into metabolic pathways. It is in this context some of the synthetic biologists call their products ‘genetically engineered machines’. The analogy of a machine brings to the focus human design as well as control. A genetically engineered machine would be a living machine and as such raise the question whether it would be possible to convert living organisms into machines. Is there any fundamental difference between living organisms and machines? This means the mechanistic philosophy of nature is staging a comeback in synthetic biology. What is the moral status of living machines? Will it not have tremendous social impact given that our underlying beliefs and attitudes regarding living organisms.

4.2 Application-related Questions

It is a bit early to consider the potential impacts of this nascent technology. Hence, there is a risk of exaggerated hopes or unnecessarily bleak scenarios. On one hand delving into these issues can assist us to accompany and influence the development of technology and help us to avoid the often encountered scenario where ethical assessment lags well behind technology development. In this context we have three contexts of applications.

4.2.1 Questions Concerning the Release and Recall of Synthetic Organism into the Environment
A specific goal of the synthetic biologist is to synthesize microorganisms that could identify contaminated areas or that could degrade pollutants in the environment. But there are problems that we need to attend to. In order to clean up the polluted areas we will have to release the microorganisms in the environment. Since the synthetic organism, unlike the synthetic chemicals, may reproduce and evolve there is a certain danger that after the operation clean up we might not be able to recall them back to our labs. Hence can we put nature and our life at risk.

4.2.2 Synthesis of Pathogenic Virus or Microorganisms and Bio-safety and Security
It has been demonstrated that de novo DNA synthesis can be used to produce pathogenic viruses. Novel types of highly infectious viruses may be designed and produced. This becomes a serious biosafety and biosecurity issue and has to be addressed adequately. All the stakeholders call for a need for regulation to prevent misuse. But the question is how far this regulation can go? Can they be just and fair? Is the freedom of research of scientists controlled when a ban is imposed on the production and experimentation on pathogens. ? To what extent can we control corporate institutions involved in this research.? These and many such issues become vital for our society.

4.2.3 Human Synthetic Biology Human enhancement or Extinction?
Originally synthetic biology dealt with bacteria and yeast but today the technology has been increasingly applied to human cells, which may eventually for example enable novel applications, such as new methods in gene therapy. Such a development can raise ethical questions, particularly if it is applied in embryonic stem cells. This brings back the eugenic debate as it might provide opportunities to human enhancement. But the fear is that what they call enhancement is extinction for the poor. Who will democratize the benefits of synthetic biology. Moreover, minute genetic changes can bring about huge changes in an organism. There are real dangers. Our mindless science might create a monstrous race.

4.3 Distribution-related Questions 

Every technology brings along risks and benefits. Addressing the risks and benefits as well as the access to a technology and of its products are an important part of the ethical assessment, particularly a technology of high potential like one under our scrutiny.

4.3.1 Intellectual Property and Monopolies
The access to biotechnological products is generally regulated by patents, which should protect the creative work of authors and stimulate progress in science and technology. But extensive patenting creates hierarchies and monopolies and restricts accessibility and thus limits the democratic dissemination of the benefits of science. Hence, in the context of IP regulation in the context of synthetic biology need to be further analyzed and discussed from economical, legal, social and ethical point of view.

4.3.2 Synthetic Bio- Divide
The distribution of synthetic biology from the point of the global access to its products as well as the scientific knowledge accruing from the research raises serious concerns. Will synthetic biology further widen the gap between the rich and the poor nations. The increase in accessibility of the technology of synthetic biology will indeed benefit the poorer nations. We are already speaking of digital-divide or nano-divide. Are we heading to what can be called synthetic bio-divide?


Our journey into the domain of synthetic biology has opened up many challenges to our society. We hold for a reflective, critical and responsible promotion of this science. Our country is also not lagging behind in the pursuit of synthetic biology. The University of Kerala hosted the first symposium ‘Biodesign India 01’ in October from 07- 09 2010 and called for a SBIG (synthetic biology interest group). Many see India as a country with great promise in the field. That is why our responsibility for a critical reflection on the ethics as well as the Human, and environmental impact as well as the very nature of life is an urgent imperative.


  1. Life began on the earth around four billion years ago. Religious people hold that life was created by God while scientists believe that life evolved from proto-life. But regarding this debate on the origin of life the new breakthrough tells us nothing at all. Neither it is fully artificial as it makes use of pre-existing materials to build the DNA molecule and the same is hosted by a natural cytoplasm of a bacterium.
    Craig Venter and his colleague used a bottom up approach and assembled the chemicals to make the genome of a bacteria and then the lab team transplanted the nucleus into a Mycoplasma capricolum recipient. The result is the creation of a new life form Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, a bacterium solely controlled by the synthesized genome.
  2. See accessed on 30th Dec.2010
  3. Ibid
  4. See L Campos “ That was Synthetic Biology that was” in Markus Schmidt et al, Eds Synthetic Biology : the Technoscience and its Social Consequences (New York: Springer, 2009), p.6.
  5. See Ibid.
  6. See “ Scientists Assembled at Cold Spring Harbour: Formal Opening of the Carnegie Station for Experimental Biology, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 12, 1904
  7. See W. Coleman ‘ Bateson and chromosomes: Conservative thought in Science.’ Centaurus, (1970), Vol. no. 15, pp. 228-314.
  8. See L Campos “ That was Synthetic Biology that was” in Markus Schmidt et al, pp. 9-10
  9. See Ibid, p.11.
  10. See Ibid
  11. See, D.S.Jordan, “ A Consensus of Present Day Knowledge as set forth by Leading Authorities in Non-Technical Language That All May Understand” in Francis Mason, Ed., Creation by Evolution (New York, the MacMillan Company, 1928),p.3
  12. See L Campos “ That was Synthetic Biology that was” in Markus Schmidt et al, p. 14.
  13. See Ibid
  14. See Ibid
  15. See Ibid
  16. See Ibid, p. 15
  17. See Ibid, p. 16
  18. See Ibid, p. 17
  19. See Ibid, p. 19
  20. See Ibid
  21. See Ibid
  22. See Ibid, p.20
  23. See www. Biosectrumasia.cum. accessed on 30 Dec 2010.
  24. O’M alley MA, Powel A Davies JF and Calvert J, Knowledge-making Distinctions in Synthetic Biology, BioEssays, Vol no 30 (2006), pp. 57-65.
  25. See Caroyln M.C.Lam, Miguel Godinho, and Victor A. P. Martins dos Santos, ‘An introduction to synthetic biology’ in Markus Schmidt et al, pp.26-27.
  26. Ibid, p. 28.
  27. Ibid, p. 29.
  28. ISee Ibid, p, 32.
  29. See Ibid, p, 33.
  30. See Ibid,pp.34-36.
  31. See Ibid,pp.36-37.
  32. Synthetic biologists use procedures as diverse as DNA-synthesis, metabolic engineering, chemical synthesis of the protocell, computer modeling or synthesis of alternative bases.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao