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Laboratory equipment in the MICALIS quantitative metagenomics (MetaQuant) experimental facility. © INRA, INRA

How synthetic biology could benefit from the social sciences

The stance of the INRA-CIRAD Common Advisory Committee for Ethics in Agricultural Research

In January 2014, the INRA-CIRAD Common Advisory Committee for Ethics in Agricultural Research released a report on synthetic biology. In expanding on its reflections regarding nanotechnologies, the committee has called upon researchers and research institutions to act responsibly, not only by taking into account the anticipated consequences of their work but also by reflecting on the pace and significance of the innovations being developed. We asked Louis Schweitzer, the committee’s chairman, two questions.

Updated on 12/09/2014
Published on 10/14/2014

Young woman carrying out an experiment under a fume hood in a laboratory in the MICALIS quantitative metagenomics (MetaQuant) experimental facility. © INRA, NICOLAS Bertrand
Young woman carrying out an experiment under a fume hood in a laboratory in the MICALIS quantitative metagenomics (MetaQuant) experimental facility © INRA, NICOLAS Bertrand

What are the ethical questions being raised by the rise and progression of synthetic biology, especially with regards to agronomy research? What are the ethical requirements for researchers?

Louis Schweitzer: Synthetic biology is a new way of studying life. It is reshaping biology—transforming it from a descriptive science to an engineering science. This process has lead us to once again question the differences and similarities between the natural and the artificial. It is also the goal of biotechnology to simplify living systems by limiting their number of functions to those required to achieve a certain objective. The union of several key technology-enhancing fields (e.g., biology, informatics, chemistry) has generated conditions that favor the emergence of  disruptive technologies that lead to innovations whose ultimate uses remain unknown. The official opinion on synthetic biology that the Committee for Ethics adopted on November 15, 2013, includes a reminder that, given such circumstances, researchers need to aim for a high level of transparency and critical reflexivity when explaining their work. The committee also recommends tackling novel issues related to intellectual property rights and risk analysis, because certain products generated by synthetic biology research have unprecedented properties. Consequently, the committee suggests that bioengineering that affects public health and the environment be conducted in such a way as to encourage the development of ethically responsible innovations.

Progress and innovation are at the heart of synthetic biology research. What is the committee’s position with regards to these two concepts?

Louis Schweitzer: The committee is also making a unique contribution because it is committed to, first, carefully examining the presence or absence of a relationship between progress and innovation in an economy that is constantly being flooded with new innovations and, second, restoring meaningful progress. The committee is not looking to keep the world static. Indeed, it highlights this fact in its list of principles and values. It feels that avoiding any irreversible changes to nature in the interests of preserving the environment is an impossible ideal. Since the Neolithic, humankind has been modifying the world in which it lives, all while engaging in interdependent relationships with the earth’s other living creatures, such as plants and animals, that themselves lead independent lives. In its published opinion on synthetic biology, the committee maintains that, for progress to take place, society must remain open to technological innovations while acknowledging that it is necessary, insofar as it is possible, to assess and predict the impacts of these innovations on the way people live and on human development. It is also necessary to ensure that any resulting benefits are equitably shared. To make real progress, which means improving the conditions in which the men and women of the world live, it is crucial that advances be taught, managed, and shared. To overcome the resistance that progress may engender in a certain segment of the population—resistance that can sometimes become entrenched—it is necessary to convince the public that researchers and research institutions scrupulously evaluate the risks of the innovations they are developing and that they are committed to sharing the resulting benefits.

Scientific contact(s):

Associated Centre(s):
Paris (head office)

Five recommendations for researchers and research institutions

1• Remain humble in the face of life’s complexity.
2• Shed light on synthetic biology’s activities and goals.
3• Work towards a higher level of reflexivity.
4• Assess and minimize risks.
5• Establish appropriate rules regarding intellectual property rights.

Read opinion (no. 5) on synthetic biology (in French) issued in January 2014 by the INRA CIRAD Common Advisory Committee for Ethics in Agricultural Research

Risk management

  • The Committee for Ethics feels that synthetic biology needs to reexamine the way in which it evaluates the risks associated with biotechnologies, particularly because the concept of “substantial equivalence,” which involves comparing new products with existing products, is not appropriate given the entirely novel nature of synthetic molecules and organisms. The committee feels that it is important to encourage researchers to help establish regulations and to legally recognize “whistleblowers.”
  • The preventative management of the risks related to bioterrorism requires three categories of action: drawing up rules, logging activities, and monitoring agents.
  • The committee nonetheless underscores that it is naive to think that all risks can be identified and managed ahead of time. It recommends remaining vigilant when it comes to the potential applications of biotechnologies during the post-research period.

Should we impose a moratorium?

“The more I innovate, the more responsibility I must accept for the consequences of my work. However, the more I innovate, the less I am able to predict those consequences.” How can this paradox be resolved?

At the beginning of the genetic engineering revolution, at the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA (held in California), strict guidelines were adopted by the scientists present, who were aware of the concerns related to this new science; the goal was to leave ample time to evaluate the risks associated with genetic engineering and decide upon a framework for laboratory practices. Synthetic biology is in a very different situation: the field brings together diverse players and practices, and it is naïve to think that a select few could foist research limits on the whole of that community. Rather than imposing a “moratorium,” the Committee for Ethics suggests nurturing a collective sense of responsibility and provides some specific recommendations for doing so (see sidebar 1).

It is worth noting that the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues and the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologieshave also expressed that they are against the idea of a moratorium.

Based on the January 2014 Opinion (on synthetic biology) published by the Common Advisory Committee for Ethics in Agricultural Research.