Imagine that you and your friend want to start a poultry farm to produce eggs. If possible, one excellent way to reduce the cost is by removing all the features that are not necessary for laying eggs – feathers, legs, eyes, and other sensory perceptions – from the chick. It is as if it were born anew only to lay eggs and nothing else! This is the concept echoed in synthetic biology, to engineer unicellular organisms doing only intended tasks and nothing else.
Synthetic biology, sometimes called “Nature 2.0,” is an emerging field in life science with enormous potential to transform the world. It enables us to manipulate and rearrange existing organisms using engineering principles and attempting to give them properties and characteristics that do not exist in nature. It is predicted that in the coming decades, synthetic biology products—food, pharmaceuticals, biofuels, and bioweapons—will be part of everyday life, having a similar impact on our lives and society as synthetic chemistry and its products had during the last century. Despite being a contingency of it, synthetic biology differs from current biotech in its scope, scale, and ambitious vision. A loose analogy is a progression from classical programming to machine learning in computer science. Given the constructive and destructive implications of this technology, it is both exciting and concerning at the same time. Its ability to manipulate ‘life’ at a fundamental level raises deep philosophical, ethical, and religious questions.
Its ability to manipulate ‘life’ at a fundamental level raises deep philosophical, ethical, and religious questions.
Synthetic biology uses engineering principles of abstraction, standardization, and modularization on the cells to achieve its goals. Research in synthetic biology can be classified as a top-down or a bottom-up approach. In the top-down approach, scientists try to create organisms with the bare minimum needs to be ‘alive’; that is, one with the minimum ability to metabolize and reproduce. Biological organisms have complex functionalities within them to adapt and survive in a dynamic environment. The top-down approach tries to remove all this ‘clutter’ and create a minimal cell. Then, add the desired character to this minimum cell to obtain the intended application. Again, borrowing from the more familiar software world, it is like an attempt to create a bare minimum operating system upon which application modules can be layered to gain intended functionality. On the other hand, the bottom-up approach efforts to develop a minimum functional cell from scratch by creating or assembling existing parts. This approach considers the cell as a system that can be, and should be engineered, and its variations can be made by choice rather than by chance as it is in nature.
This approach considers the cell as a system that can be, and should be engineered, and its variations can be made by choice rather than by chance as it is in nature.
Major ethical concerns on synthetic biology are centered around biosafety and biosecurity. The myriad ways by which biological organisms interact with their environment and subsequent adaptations will have consequences at both local and ecological scales. Inadequate knowledge about these interactions and uncertainty in predicting these changes are causing biosafety concerns. Putting too much emphasis on the parts, rather than the cell as a whole system with adaptive abilities, could lead to unwanted results and be potentially disastrous. The moral and ethical responsibilities of these irreversible events must be thoroughly thought-out, mainly, since synthetic biology aims to create organisms with traits that do not exist in nature. Another ethical concern of ‘democratizing’ these powerful technologies stems from an apprehension that the relative ease of implementation, availability of resources, and knowledge base can be dangerous in the hands of an immature DIYer or a malicious player. Discourses must be allowed to happen on how this technology can be responsibly integrated into society. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, in its first report, ‘New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies,’ identified public beneficence, responsible stewardship, intellectual freedom and responsibility, democratic deliberation, and justice and fairness as the five ethical principles relevant to the social implications of synthetic biology. It called for “prudent vigilance” in the path ahead to pursue the benefits without mitigating attention to risks.
Discourses must be allowed to happen on how this technology can be responsibly integrated into society.
Reductionism combined with an engineering approach in synthetic biology leads to the objectifying of ‘life,’ and thus, justifies any exploitation of biological systems. That takes away the normative concept of ‘life,’ which is at the heart of culture and civility, that life should be protected, nurtured, and nourished. In synthetic biology, ‘life’ has a descriptive meaning of the state of a mechanical system that is readily amenable for design and manipulation at a systemic level. Tweaking a small part of an organism to attain useful applications, as in the current genetic engineering to synthetic biology’s audacious goals of designing or redesigning biological organisms, is a giant leap in terms of qualitative and quantitative aspects, and thus, warrants a closer philosophical inspection on how human agency interacts with nature.
In synthetic biology, ‘life’ has a descriptive meaning of the state of a mechanical system that is readily amenable for design and manipulation at a systemic level.
The phrase “playing God” is often used to describe this creative aspect of synthetic biology. This ability to ‘create’ life is considered reproachable and a transgression into the Divine realm. In fact, creation in synthetic biology is fundamentally different from the act of creation that theology attributes to God. God’s creation is “creatio ex nihilo,” or creation from nothing; an ability that lies beyond human faculty. Even if it were possible to build a living cell entirely from non-living complex molecules, it would still have to be considered creation by combining pre-existing parts. Moreover, even the bottom-up approach to creating ‘life’ from inanimate components attempts to create a minimal replica of the existing cellular architecture. Theological teachings assert that man is incapable of acting as God does; thus, the human ability is not eligible to be compared to God’s Creation. Further, a false notion that God is a competitive engineer to humans is at the root of the fear which assumes that synthetic biology will usurp the Creator.
God’s creation is “creatio ex nihilo,” or creation from nothing; an ability that lies beyond human faculty.
The crux of the theological issue about synthetic biology is whether the creation of new organisms from inert material is consistent with humanity’s role, or if it goes against the domain of God. One view in favor of the argument is based on the adoption of the dominium terrae (the Divine commission to humankind, Gen 1:28). This view suggests that human beings are given the gift of intellect and are entrusted, which places the obligation on man to participate in the new creation. On the other hand, skeptics of this technology use the Biblical narratives that sovereign authority over life belongs only to God. Thus humans should not intervene in the Divine domain.
The crux of the theological issue about synthetic biology is whether the creation of new organisms from inert material is consistent with humanity’s role, or if it goes against the domain of God.
The opinion on the ethics of synthetic biology issued by The Commission of the (Catholic) Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) suggested a prudent approach to this frontier of scientific discipline. Under the light of the teachings according to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the reflections of Pope St. John Paul II, and Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, COMECE examined these theological and ethical questions and concluded that synthetic biology is not “playing God.” Yet, it cautioned that the future direction should be respectful to the creation and that all humanity must benefit from synthetic biology.
The opinions of state and religion on ethical aspects of synthetic biology align well, and they caution us to move forward carefully; as we set out for the treasures in the uncharted territories, we may also find dragons along the way.
References and Further reading
- Gutmann, A., 2011. The ethics of synthetic biology: guiding principles for emerging technologies. Hastings Center Report, 41(4), pp.17-22.
- Boldt, J., 2010. Synthetic biology: Origin, scope, and ethics. J. Center for Humans and Nature, 3, pp.20-25.
- Garner, K.L., 2021. Principles of synthetic biology. Essays in Biochemistry, 65(5), pp.791-811.
- Dabrock, P., 2009. Playing God? Synthetic biology as a theological and ethical challenge. Systems and synthetic biology, 3(1), pp.47-54.
- Heavey, P., 2017. Synthetic Biology: The Response of the Commission of the (Catholic) Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 26(2), pp.257-266.