On September 24th, OpenGrounds held one of the first live panel collaborations between individuals representing biology, law, ethics, and the public in an exploration of synthetic biology and its implications for modern society. This event was part of the monthly Science Straight Up series, a “science cafe” event that brings science into public spaces in a relaxed and approachable manner.
Organized by U.Va’s undergraduate iGEM team (which competes annually in an international synthetic biology competition), the panel featured Dr. Keith Kozminksi, a molecular cell biologist; Margo Bagley, a professor of law; and Dr. John Arras, a professor of bioethics at U.Va.
According to Dr. Kozminski, synthetic biology involves the manipulation of organisms in order to create standardized biological parts for beneficial applications. In other words, “how can the cell work for me?” Synthetic biology grows to be increasingly more pivotal to the modern world in many ways: in agriculture, the application of genetically modified organisms to increase crop production; in medicine, the production of novel drugs; and in environmental science (among many other fields) as demonstrated by the U.Va. iGEM team and their work in filtering microplastics.
As synthetic biology is a novel field, many questions are rising as to its benefits and risks. In 2010, President Obama commissioned a bioethics report, which Dr. Arras contributed to. The report tried to present a balanced agenda between regulation to prevent worrisome low probability risks while allowing the freedom of inquiry in the scientific field. While government initiatives such as this report are helping minimize the dangers associated with synthetic biology, both Dr. Arras and Professor Bagley acknowledge that their respective field of ethics and law are struggling to catch-up with the exponential development of the scientific realm.
Dr. Bagley, who participated in the panel virtually while at a conference on biosynthetic regulation in Geneva, spoke about the difficulty of establishing an international standard for the field. There are huge differences in perspective between US and Europe. The leading international agreement, the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources (established in 1992), has not been ratified by the US. However, both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have taken part in the regulation of synthetic biology.
According to Dr. Kozminksy, the main concern is not toward the 100s of synthetic biology institutions established in American universities, but toward the rising community of DIY biologists working (potentially) from their basements and garages. While the machinery and funding required to produce synthetic bioparts is still too expensive for individuals, in the future, modification of organisms may become easier for curious individuals. Not only does the law profession (according to Professor Bagley) have to adapt more quickly (for instance, adopt a morality protocol when granting patents similar to Europe’s law standards), but also, synthetic biologists must work to promote understanding and awareness of both the ideas behind synthetic biology as well as the importance of bioethics.
Panels such as these are a step in the right direction for modern society to enjoy the benefits of synthetic biology while minimizing the risks of bio contamination and uncontrollable genome alteration.
Not only is the U.Va iGEM team working to educate students on synthetic biology but also to promote bioethics at the university and local level, as iGEM has partnered with local high schools featuring student posters on synth. biology at the panel. Follow their progress here.
Written by Yekaterina Gilbo