Ethical considerations about the Lab in a Cell
Being what it is – a low-budget, simple to use tool for protein expression and purification – the Lab in a Cell itself carries mostly the same implications as Synthetic Biology as a whole, with additional focus on the increased availability and reproducibility of the assay. Our intention for the project is to enable smaller and more mobile labs to conduct research with less effort, efficient pharmaceutical production on a smaller scale for places where no such industry is readily available and possibly to kick off the development of a Linux-like system that uses the implementation of genetic script into living cells in order to create new applications of the Lab in a Cell for laboratories and production lines. The Open Access approach also presents a better starting point for other iGEM teams or labs to further develop the Lab in a Cell concept. As with all tools, we cannot ultimately tell, let alone control what use it is being put to – it may as well facilitate some individual or organized malign application of synthetic biology. Yet that destructive will is present whether the Lab in a Cell is available or not; the potential for beneficial application however, is great – and in furthering the research and education in the subject, the benefits will outweigh the potential dangers.
The hopes for the open access publication of our project are that it helps in the democratization of knowledge in the SynBio sector, not only forming a larger, better connected and more up to date network of peers to address the issues of the day, but also making education on the subject more widely available as well as cheaper. The concept shows potential for fast paced and well-directed innovation, reducing the number of redundant experiments that have to be conducted while constantly adding to the stock of freely available data.
In an emerging scientific discipline that is defined by a teleological approach to the recombination of genetic material, the crafting of the elements within a genome with a certain function in mind, the implications for research and development are reaching far into the hopes and fears of humans. This, in conjunction with a limited availability of information on the subject which can be grasped without having dedicated some time to study it, leads to a discrepancy between the everyday life of a synthetic biologist and the public opinion on his work. While laws are being passed to calm the population about their fears of biological terrorism and unintentional harm through garage experiments or a botch in a high-security facility, a conscientious researcher finds himself misunderstood and his work stigmatized in the eyes of the populace. Thus, some kind of statement on how the scientist sees himself and his work in the world at large is needed, and has been discussed within the DIYbio community for quite some time now. We have decided to investigate the codes of conduct already in use and search for a form of statement that can be applied to everyone working in the field, giving a point of reference between society and science. The first idea was a code of conduct or aspirational code, but after reviewing how and by whom those were already implemented (top-down rules and regulations given by employers or local biotech lobbies), we opted for a different approach: the SynBioOath. Every physician is bound by the hippocratic oath to pursue his vocation in an ethical manner – not unnecessarily operating or medicating, acknowledging the boundaries of his own abilities, recognizing the complexity of the matter and what has been achieved to make his work possible in the form it is now; in short: to apply his art to the benefit of humankind. There is an understanding that whoever takes up a work as responsible as this is aware of its implications and takes it upon himself to act accordingly – not regarding where or for whom he works. Similarly, the synthetic biologist must himself take responsibility for his actions and the possible repercussions, without relying upon some institution to tell him what is right. This is the nature of the SynBioOath: it is a commitment of oneself to ethical work and good practice in the scientific context.
In proposing the SynBio Oath to young scientists – with growing interest from and in cooperation with different groups involved in relating science to ethical behaviour such as the Rathenau Institute and DIYBiologists from all over the world, we are attempting to further bind research to the responsibility it entails. Our hopes in this respect are that the community we reach will take up and advocate the oath, spreading it to a degree where it becomes a fixed factor in SynBio ethics. Given the response is enough to generate interest in the proposed community, the supervision of applications of synthetic biology becomes quicker, more accurate and more natural in that adherents to the oath declare themselves answerable to requests from their peers as well as the public, and can be called upon by said community. A common effort such as this makes it much easier to spot and counter malign applications of the craft, intentional as well as unintentional.