Team:KU Leuven/Practices/Ethics


Synthetic biology is a relatively new branch and the debate about it is still in an early stage. On top of that, there are numerous important social organisations and public groups who didn’t formulate a clear opinion about synthetic biology. This implicates that the current debate didn’t evolve in a particular direction. Synthetic biology often brings along ethical and social issues. Our survey about the perception of synthetic biology in the Belgian society confirms that there is still a great disagreement. How can synthetic biology be regulated? How can we bring synthetic biology to the public? Can life be patented? At the KU Leuven iGEM symposium, a panel of experts in synthetic biology as well as the public gave their opinions about numerous ethical and moral issues. This page is expanded with what we learned during this debate and from the survey.

Panel members and moderator

Prof. Bart De Moor is a professor at the KU Leuven in the department of Electrical Engineering. Further, he is the Scientific Director of iMinds and a co-founder of BioSCENTer at the KU Leuven. Next to that, Bart de Moor is the director of the KU Leuven iGEM team.

Prof. Johan Robben is a professor at KU Leuven where he runs the Lab of Molecular and Synthetic Biology. Additionally, he is also the promoter of our KU Leuven iGEM team.

Dr Stijn Bruers obtained his PhD in Moral Philosophy at the University of Ghent and his PhD in Physics at the KU Leuven.

Prof. Vera van Noort, a scientist at the EMBL, became in 2013 an associate professor at the KU Leuven in computational systems biology.

Victor Dillard heads the Desktop Genetics' business development and operations, and is leading the product and technology expansion on CRISPR and genome editing.

And last but not least, our moderator Prof. Piet Van der Meer. He is a professor at the University of Ghent at the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Sciences and he is also a professor at the Free University of Brussels at the Faculty of Science and Bio-Engineering.

What is synthetic biology?

Before delving into ethical questions and the details of regulation in synthetic biology, it is crucial to understand what is going to be debated about. Generally, when five scientists are asked to define synthetic biology, five different answers are given. Here, some examples of what we heard during the symposium:

Debate definitions

“Synthetic biology is just biology, but more efficient.”
“Synthetic biology is biotechnology on steroids.”
“Synthetic biology is biotechnology +.”
“Synthetic biology is the biological analogue to what happened in the semiconductor industry; it is biology going from the analysis phase to the design phase.” - B. De Moor
“Synthetic biology is a brand, which brings biologists and people from other fields together.” - V. Dillard
“Synthetic biology is man-made biology.” - J. Robben
“Synthetic biology serves as a platform to better understand the organisms and model their metabolic networks.” - V. van Noort
“Synthetic biology is the construction of cells from the bottom up.” - S. Bruers

Taking a closer look at all these definitions, we infer that human involvement is considered to be a major part of synthetic biology. At this point, more questions arise. How should we act? What should we build? What are the associated risks in the process? Which rules should guide us in the process and how should we enforce them?

How should synthetic biology be regulated?

Safety regulations are definitely needed. One only needs to look at the threat posed by invasive species to local biodiversity around the globe to see that releasing new species into an ecosystem can be problematic. On the other hand, excessive regulation could severely impede the progress of science. We need to distinguish risk assessment by researchers or government? Regulators should strive to find a good compromise balancing the protection of the public and limiting research only when it is necessary. It turns out that current European regulation is highly inconsistent. Some low risk technologies are highly regulated, while at the same time high risk approaches remain unregulated. The problem originates from the fact that in Europe when it comes to regulation, it is not the technology itself but its novelty that decides the level of regulation applied. There is no notion of risk. This can lead to absurd situations. Possibly this problem originates from the fact that the public perceives novel technologies as a bigger threat than well established ones and thus demands more strict regulations.

What can we learn from the public?

Politicians follow the public opinion when devising the rules that scientists will have to follow. However, the public is often guided by emotion instead of facts. It is all about a communication problem, we have the unique opportunity to market it properly this time. There are three deficits we need to take into account: the democratic deficit, the legal deficit and the ethical deficit. Additionally, the public debate is cognitively biased with environmentalists frequently communicating fear. Therefore it is vital to inform the public better about the benefits and the risks of synthetic biology. We scientists are still people and we care for society. We do not want to be mad, we are doing this for a particular purpose. But it is not only about why we are doing this, there is also the impact of not doing it. The goal must be to stimulate more evidence based thinking in the debate. Apart from providing just the facts, companies and universities should make it a point to communicate emotionally and rationally. Furthermore, scientists are under-represented in our parliaments. Often members of parliament are lawyers or people with a background in humanities. Having more scientists in parliament could possibly lead to a better regulation of scientific research. Scientists think they are saints, they think they are outside the society, but in fact they are inside. It is not us against them, we need to take the initiative by going to the parliament, writing articles, etc.

What applications are acceptable/forbidden?

There is no list of which applications would be acceptable or forbidden, we need to take it into consideration in a greater context. Benefits and risk are not universal, a risk for us may not be a risk for other people or things. You may wish to do the right thing, but you do not always do it. Most of the technology is already there, we just have to make a decision. By genome editing, we can cure a cancer, but with the same technology we are able to choose the characteristics of the embryo. Nuclear energy and the atomic bomb are two very different things. And what about the next generation? Development of new genetically engineered things go through multiple phases, where the company considers different perspectives on the consequences. We really need to take into account all the consequences concerning ethics, society, safety, economics, etc.


We can conclude that we need to approach the debate on synthetic biology in another way. Safety regulations are needed, but we have to think on what level we want to implement them. We can handle the communication problem by taking initiatives. Not only by informing the public, but also intervene on a higher level. Last but not least, we have to consider very well the consequences of what we want to do, or the impact of not doing it. Not only for us, but also for other people, the environment, and the future generations.


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