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Changing Mindsets : Values in Synthetic Biology

Controversial and surrounded by misinformation, genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) have been a hot topic for decades. A new study however, shows that even though many people are opposed to them, GMO corn increases crop yields significantly and even provides health benefits due to fewer mycotoxins (up to 36,5% less, depending on the species). Mycotoxins are chemicals produced by fungi and are poisonous to humans and animals.

This study might be a step towards greater acceptance of GMOs and the field of synthetic biology as a whole. Often accused of ‘playing god’, synthetic biologists focus on changing the very fabric of life itself by mutating the genetics of organisms, opening the possibility of entirely new forms of life. We are already experiencing the growth of synthetic biology adoption across a wide spectrum of industries such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, energy and agriculture. In healthcare, synthetic biology opens the doors to designing tailor-made applications and vaccines which can cure challenging diseases or produce compatible organs and tissues, eliminating the need to find a matching donor. In energy industries, synthetic biology is the latest candidate for ideal renewable power. Exxon Mobile, in collaboration with Synthetic Genomics, announced last year a breakthrough in the research of algae bio-fuel by doubling algae’s ability to convert carbon dioxide into oil. Algae are an excellent bio fuel alternative because of their ability to grow in harsh environmental conditions such as salt water; thereby reducing the need for fresh water supplies.

The global synthetic biology market is expected to reach USD 8.84 billion by 2022, from an estimated USD 3.57 billion in 2017, with China leading the way, thus marking the dawn of the next milestone in civilization: the Biotechnological Revolution, following the Information Revolution and the Industrial Revolution that preceded it. However, the biggest challenge upon us is not its technological implementation, but the ethical implications that synthetic biology brings.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in ‘Nature and its Discontents,’ points out potential moral decline caused by the risk of losing our humanity; all life becoming malleable as the differentiation between humans and nature disappear. There is the risk of creating organisms based solely on their purpose to human society, which could lead to value placed on life that possesses such a purpose at the expense of all other, seemingly ‘useless’ life.

The ethics of synthetic biology most often leads back to a single argument: we should not ‘play god’. Supporters of this argument believe that creating life is traditionally seen as the monopoly of God, and humans, in their arrogance, could cause a bio-genetic and ecological disaster. Hans-Jürgen Link, on the other hand, argues that even if the creation of synthetic organisms results in a change of the moral fabric of society, there is no need to assume this change necessarily includes moral decline. Also, it is not certain that when synthetic organisms are finally here aiding us in our daily life, we will start to devalue life itself. Link is convinced that bio-genetic disasters are very unlikely, and that the discomfort and fear of synthetic biology could be decreased by making sure biologists pay enough attention to how they present and communicate their technology.

However contradictory the current debate concerning ethical dilemmas of synthetic biology is, it doesn’t change the fact that we are on the brink of a new radical paradigm shift, requiring us to reevaluate our negative attitude towards genetical engineering en bloc. Synthetic biology could possibly help avert the impending doom of an ecological catastrophe, and GMOs are one of the few solutions that might help feed a growing population. By 2050, the world population will have grown to almost 10 billion people, a staggering amount who need to be fed. A declining amount of fertile soil due to climate change (growing deserts, rising sea levels), demands that agriculture will have to be much more efficient than it is today, and GMOs could contribute to this.

Sources:

Link, Hans-Jürgen. ‘Playing God and the Intrinsic Value of Life: Moral Problems for Synthetic Biology?’ Science and Engineering Ethics, 19, 2 (2012): 436-448.

Žižek, Slavoj. ‘Nature and its Discontents.’ SubStance, 37, 8 (2008): 37-72

Text: Steven van der Haak
Illustration: Mario Dzurila