Call for debate on the ethics of engineering new life forms

Scientists in synthetic biology need to engage with the public to define what is life, writes Zoe Corbyn

June 12, 2008

A scientist artificially creates the outer boundaries of cells. She inserts living material enabling the artificial structures to communicate. Is what she has created alive?

A debate around what life is and whether she is "playing God" is needed if the emerging field of synthetic biology is to progress in a way that is ethically acceptable and commands public support, according to a report published this week.

The report, Synthetic Biology: Social and Ethical Challenges, commissioned by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, discusses the questions raised by the increasingly controversial area of science and make recommendations on social and ethical issues to research funders and scientists.

Authors Andrew Balmer and Paul Martin of the Institute for Science and Society at the University of Nottingham say scientists should engage the public early in the development of the field to ensure research does not get ahead of public attitudes.

They call for a debate on the definition of life. "(The issue is) what we understand life is at a philosophical, theological and scientific level. Having a broader debate would be very helpful to how we regulate the field in the future," Dr Martin told Times Higher Education.

Synthetic biology has no agreed definition, according to the report, but is "best understood" as the deliberate design of biological systems and living organisms using engineering principles. Its aims includes construction of entirely artificial cells.

"What synthetic biologists are doing in trying to create new life forms causes a problem for how we define life," Dr Martin said. "A lot of people assume they know what life is but, philosophically and technically, trying to define a living system is extremely difficult."

The report, Dr Martin stressed, does not attempt to define life but sets out current thinking. "A number of philosophers have struggled with this. Some say a stable definition is impossible and useless." Others claim synthetic biology will revolutionise our understanding of life.

"One group of scientists (based at Nottingham) is trying to develop a 'life imitation test' to come up with a set of criteria for when they can say something is living ... The whole issue could potentially cause a lot of controversy with religious leaders," Dr Martin said.

The report also warns that the potential benefits of the technology - which include clean fuels, medical treatments and biological computers - must not be overhyped and a governance framework must be developed.

"A thorough review of existing controls and regulations, and the development of new measures, particularly relating to biosafety, environmental release and biosecurity," are needed, the report says.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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