• Reduce text

    Reduce text
  • Restore text size

    Restore text size
  • Increase the text

    Increase the text
  • Print

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

How synthetic biology could benefit from the social sciences

The unique approach of Toulouse White Biotechnology

Toulouse White Biotechnology is one of the major French consortia focused on synthetic biology. It has adopted a novel approach: it invites sociologists and philosophers to take part in all of its research programs and works with an ethics committee.

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 01/16/2015
Published on 10/14/2014

Equipment at Toulouse White Biotechnology, a center for excellence in the field of white industrial biotechnology. It is affiliated with the Laboratory for the Engineering of Biological Systems and Processes (LISBP) of INSA Toulouse, consisting of an INRA/CNRS Joint Research Unit. Fermentation experimental facility—a row of 2-L fermenters and their dedicated control systems, used to culture microorganisms. © INRA, CATTIAU Giles
Equipment at Toulouse White Biotechnology, a center for excellence in the field of white industrial biotechnology. It is affiliated with the Laboratory for the Engineering of Biological Systems and Processes (LISBP) of INSA Toulouse, consisting of an INRA/CNRS Joint Research Unit. Fermentation experimental facility—a row of 2-L fermenters and their dedicated control systems, used to culture microorganisms © INRA, CATTIAU Giles

Toulouse White Biotechnology (TWB) conducts research on what are called “white” industrial biotechnologies. One of the aims of white biotechnology is to use plant biomass to produce chemical products and bioenergy at an industrial scale.

Transforming biomass in this way requires specific enzymes or microorganisms; to obtain them, companies sometimes take advantage of synthetic biology tools. For instance, via computational design, it is possible to create novel enzymes capable of catalyzing chemical reactions for which there are no natural catalysts. Pierre Monsan (1) explains, “One of our current projects is focused on manufacturing recyclable bioplastics; another aims to make biokerosene by engineering yeast that metabolize their lipids in a particular way; and a third seeks to generate a bacterium that could produce an amino acid precursor that could be used in animal feed.”

An outside perspective

At TWB, each project is required to take into account ethical concerns, a recommendation made by ANR (2), a funding organization. Monsan says, “We wanted to go further and invited ESES Toulouse (3) to become one of the founding members of TWB. It is part of our practices to work with a sociologist and two philosophers, one of whom is an official project collaborator [see section 6]. This person works almost full time in the laboratory alongside our researchers. Our researchers have to accept the fact that their work is being observed by someone from the outside, a sociologist or a philosopher. This interaction between the social sciences and the natural sciences helps pave the way for future public debates.” These collaborations are complemented by biannual meetings with an ethics committee whose members come from the broader community.

“Go or No Go”

When a project is in development, there are steps at which a decision is made as to whether to proceed or stop. They are referred to as “Go or No Go” steps. At these moments, ethical concerns are addressed, and they may result in a project being stopped if they are insurmountable. The biologists and social scientists together weigh the costs versus the benefits of the project and, more generally, the ability of any of its potential innovations to improve or transform society. They consider different solutions and compare the respective impacts. Thierry Magnin (4), who is a member of the TWB ethics committee, explains, “This is not a narrow view of ethics, in which they are considered to be an obstacle. [Rather] it is a trend towards increasing freedom with a view to having a better life while expressing a concern for others and engaging in the fair use of social institutions” (5).There is a collective sense of responsibility.

Raising awareness among researchers

TWB’s approach also involves training scientists to become more aware of ethical concerns; it uses interviews, questionnaires, and interdisciplinary meetings, such as the one held in Lyon in 2013 (6). “I strongly believe in cultivating a sense of social responsibility in researchers, a method that I find to be far more effective than any sort of watchdog approach,” comments Vincent-Grégoire Delory, a philosopher and TWB’s current formal project collaborator (7). He continues, “There were monitoring efforts put into place before and after Hiroshima. Regulations, laws, policies, all of these are likely to change over time, but if researchers have adopted a certain position, accompanied by a set of clear and well-reasoned values, they will be able to resist temptation, including the temptation to engage in actions that may have become legal. In other words, they will place self-imposed limits on their research and not exceed those boundaries even if the law allows it. ”This training process starts with students, who also have a need to define the values they hold with respect to scientific progress. Indeed, the curriculum at engineering schools is now adapted to meet this growing field of interest. For example, at the Purpan engineering school in Toulouse, as a result of student demand, an ethics course is now included in the core curriculum.Similarly, elective courses in ethics for science and technology attract lots of students at Supaéro, an aerospace engineering school.
(1) Pierre Monsan is TWB’s director.
(2) Since 2011, TWB has been receiving French Stimulus Initiative (Investissements d’Avenir) funds, which are granted by ANR, the French National Research Agency.
(3) ESES: the École supérieure d’éthique des sciences (Department of Higher Studies in Science Ethics), part of the Catholic Institute of Toulouse.
(4) Thierry Magnin is the founder and former director of ESES; he is currently president of the Catholic University of Lyon.
(5) According to the defiinition provided by Paul Ricoeur in his work Soi-même comme un autre (Oneself as Another) (Seuil, Paris, 1990).
(6) “Ethique des technologies du vivant” (“Biotechnology Ethics”) conference, Lyon, 2013.
(7) Vincent-Grégoire Delory is the current director of ESES.

Scientific contact(s):

  • Pierre Monsan UMR0792 LISBP Joint Research Unit for the Engineering of Biological Systems and Processes
Associated Division(s):
Microbiology and the Food Chain , Science for Food and Bioproduct Engineering
Associated Centre(s):

Anticipating philosophical issues

Delory says, “There is a duality between nature and artificiality, but we need to add culture into this mix because it has a strong influence on what we perceive as natural or artificial. We thus end up with a complex trio. An artificial bacterium has yet to be developed, but using the top-down approach, it should be possible to create a simple bacterium that can carry out a single function, the production of a compound of interest, for example. However, can this organism, which would be incapable of interacting with other organisms or dealing with a changing environment, still be placed in the category of living things? The bottom-up approach, which aims to create life from non-living components, raises other questions. Even if this goal will not be achieved in the near future, the creation of life would completely transform our perception of life, with its mystery and sacredness. There would be philosophical and theological implications. We also have to reflect well beforehand on what would happen if we managed to create artificial human chromosomes [1]”.

(1) An artificial yeast chromosome was synthesized in 2014. See N. Annaluru et al. Science, March 28, 2014.

Equipements du TWB, centre d'excellence dans le domaine des biotechnologies industrielles dites

Photo tour of TWB

See the video about TWB (in French), which includes an interview with Pierre Monsan.

Toulouse White Biotechnology website