Synthetic Biology

Responsible innovation

One of the goals of synthetic biology is to create new forms of life, which naturally raises ethical questions about mankind's responsibility to make life artificially. The possibility to act on its own species or alter the natural evolution of life increases this responsibility.

Developpement responsable.gif

Synthetic organisms such as viruses or other pathogens could be made with malicious intent, which raises new challenges in biosafety. This situation is even more worrying as technologies of molecular biology have become available for a growing number of people: information on techniques of molecular biology and structure of viruses can be found on the Internet, some companies can synthesize custom DNA sequences at more affordable prices, and even non-academic amateur groups of synthetic biology called "biohackers" have arisen.

Beyond the deliberate release of synthetic organisms into the environment, there is a risk of accidental release, which could have negative effects on the environment and health. Because of the versatility of synthetic biology, synthetic organisms could be radically different from natural organisms and therefore have unusual and unpredictable behavior. However, synthetic biology can design, model and characterize a synthetic organism before it is built. This prior knowledge, even if not perfect, can anticipate a possible misbehavior.

As a multidisciplinary field (biotechnology, electronics, software), synthetic biology raises difficult questions about intellectual property protection, particularly the patenting of genes or software. In addition, protecting by patents of bio-standardized components could hamper future research in the area.

Finally, another sensitive issue, not specific to synthetic biology, is the control of technology by a few big companies. Invoking law of intellectual property they could override regulations.

These perspectives are of great concern and society must weigh the benefits and risks to decide how to develop the field of synthetic biology. Meanwhile, several steps can be taken: screening of sensitive DNA sequences, protection systems for people working in the laboratory, regulations for product traceability, transparent information to the general public, ethics committees to examine the opportunity to develop this area of science and technology.

These problems, which are political and social decisions rather than scientific and technological choices, are not specific to synthetic biology. To make technological choices and implement them citizens must have a scientific culture. Accordingly, it is important that citizens can access information, have appropriate training and participate in public debates on the subject.

left arrow
right arrow