KULeuven iGEM 2011


Debate about synthetic biology: changing the quality of our life?

Before the debate.

We took the initiative to organize a debate on the ethics of synthetic biology, which was held on September the first, and invited the ULB iGEM team to collaborate with us. After inviting four speakers (Prof. Bruno André, Johan Robben, Jacques van Helden and Johan De Tavernier) and a moderator (Prof. Filip Rolland), we send an invitation and information kit to the students and professors of different universities in Belgium. On the registration page we added a short questionnaire to find out more about the prior knowledge and opinion on synthetic biology of our audience. The results of this survey showed that 12% of the participants had never heard of synthetic biology (Graph 1). But, although we invited people from different educational backgrounds, about 75% of our audience was involved in biological sciences. When we focused at participants without a scientific (biological) background, we found that the percentage of people who never heard about synthetic biology rose to 31% (Graph 2). This implies that the number of people with a biological background who never heard of synthetic biology is only about 6%. Thus, there appears to be a huge difference in the familiarity with the concept of synthetic biology, depending on the educational background of the people interviewed.

Graph 1: Familiarity with synthetic biology. Results of the whole field of participants. (n= 106) Graph 2: Familiarity with synthetic biology. Results of participants without a higher education in biological science. (n= 27)

The debate.

In beforehand we prepared a program with the flow of the debate and some general questions we would like to discuss, so that the professors were able to prepare themselves for the debate. We presented our vision on the definition of synthetic biology and our project (click here to see the ppt presentation). Afterwards the ULB team also presented their project (click here to see the ppt presentation).

In the following part, we will give an overview of some of the most striking comments given during our debate.

When the panel members gave their view on the definition of synthetic biology, it was clear that their opinions deviated from the one we had written in the information kit: ‘the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems that do not exist in the natural world and also the redesign of existing biological systems to perform specific tasks’ (the ETC group, an Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration). For instance, professor van Helden said that our definition of synthetic biology in the information kit was just one of the many definitions and not the best one. He stated that our definition of GMO had a few shortcomings, but he was more pleased with the definition we gave during the presentation. He mentioned that improvement is not part of the definition of GMO and a reference to recombinant DNA was missing. Professor De Tavernier defined synthetic biology shortly as the design of new biological systems that are not found in nature. He made an interesting comparison between machines and synthetic organisms. The difference is that the latter would have more features than machines, e.g. self-reproduction. We all agreed on that all GMOs are synthetic organisms, but not all synthetic organisms are GMOs.

Upon continuation with the other questions, it soon became clear that biosafety was one of the biggest concerns of all the participating panel members. Professor van Helden gave us interesting insights into our text about safety, like the fact that the risk of horizontal gene transfer was an issue that wasn't explained enough in our safety measures. Professor Robben gave us the advice that, if E.D. Frosti would be used commercially, instead of using a suicide mechanism, we could try to make a mechanism to prevent E.D. Frosti from spreading by exploiting the nutritional requirements of the bacteria. We could for instance modulate its nutritional requirements, and make the bacteria dependent on certain nutrition which can’t be found in nature or use XenoDNA (chemically modifided DNA that cannot interfere with natural DNA) . Professor De Tavernier discussed biosafety in a more general perspective, posing that a case per case study should be employed for the final decision on the permission to use synthetic organisms. For this one should ask the question: what is the risk probability versus the impact of the occurrence? For each case then, one should state if these risks are acceptable or not?

Our debate was also attended by Dr. Peter Raymaekers, as part of his work for the Flemish Parliament: he's is writing a scientific report on synthetic biology. He made the intriguing remark that not only the scientific measurements of a risk are important, but also the perception of these risks by the general public. In other words, are people willing to take a risk? And is it up to us, the scientific world, to decide for them? Finally, professor André talked about the accessibility of information and people trying to undertake synthetic biology at home. Is this the future? Will people be able to do lab work in their garage or will synthetic biology stay something accessible to specifically educated people? Yet another issue that will require further debate and/or regulations.

When the question about communication was brought up, everyone immediately agreed that biological scientists should learn how to communicate better, especially towards the general public. Scientists should keep on looking for better ways to communicate about their work and to stimulate the interest of society. This debate definitely gave everyone food for thought on these issues.

Click the above photo for a slideshow.

After the debate.

To get an impression of the effect the debate had on the audience, we asked them to complete a questionnaire after the debate was closed. We were happy to see that there was a decrease of 9% in the number of people that did not understand at all the difference between synthetic biology and GMOs after this debate (graph 3 and 4). We asked several participants to give us their definition on synthetic biology, which gave the following interesting results:

Synthetic biology, to us, is:
• The construction of biological systems not found in nature.
• One step further than a GMO: it’s designed by humans and can have new ‘unnatural’ characteristics.
• Synthesis of new compounds starting from our knowledge of existing biology in nature.
• Engineering existing organisms to give them features which they do not possess in nature. This is accomplished by introducing new genetic code or genetic machinery.
• A trendy term obviously used most of the time. The main novelty is the engineer approach removed from true science.

Graph 3: people who understood the difference between synthetic biology and GMO before the debate. (n= 106) Graph 4: people who understood the difference between synthetic biology and GMO after the debate. (n= 92)

As shown in graph 5, our debate surely had an impact on people’s opinion on synthetic biology. No less than 32% revealed that the debate gave them new insights and changed their view on synthetic biology, while another 35% expressed that they had gained new knowledge, which may lead them to adjust their opinion on synthetic biology. Therefore, we can conclude that our debate was a great success in giving people new information on this topic.

Graph 5: the influence the debate had on the opinion of the attendees. (n= 92)

Concerning the ethical aspect of synthetic biology, we noted that, before the debate, no less than 80% of the participants were open to the idea of using synthetic organisms as a way to help mankind (graph 6), and this number even increased to 87% after the debate (graph 7). Despite this willingness to the possible use of synthetic biology, its safety remains of great concern to the audience.

Graph 6: readiness of people to use GMOs/ synthetic organisms to solve problems, before the debate. (n= 106) Graph 7: readiness of people to use GMOs/ synthetic organisms to solve problems, after the debate. (n= 92)

As seen in graph 8, only 8% puts their complete trust in risk assessments made by scientists, while the great majority (80%) does not want to draw general conclusions and seems to favor the case per case analysis, as posed by the panel members. In addition, although it is the responsibility of the scientist to ensure the biosecurity of the engineered organism, as stated by professor Van Helden, this may not be enough to convince the risk perception of the general public, as already mentioned above.

Graph 8: Opinions on the safety issue of synthetic organisms and GMOs. (n= 92)

In conclusion, we can say that our debate gave us some very interesting new insights into ethical several aspects of synthetic biology. To start with, it is apparent that a consensus definition on synthetic biology is still lacking. Not only the audience, but also the panel members, still have different views on a solid definition of synthetic biology. Secondly, although people in our audience seem to be quite open to the possible application of synthetic biology, safety remains a major concern, which is, of course, not surprising. In general, both the panel members and other participants favor a case per case study of risk assessment and decision on application. Finally, everybody agreed that communication on synthetic biology issues, not only within the scientific community, but also to the general public, can and should be improved. In this respect, we note that an astonishing 93% of the participants state that people should get more information on this topic (graph 9)!

Graph 9: A vast majority of participants desires more information
on synthetic biology/GMOs. (n= 92)

We are really happy to have been given the opportunity to organize this debate and are thankful to everyone who made this possible.

Personal experience of the attendees.

We requested some attendees who aren’t involved in biological sciences to write a little text of what they think about the debate:

Glenn Du Ville, aged 21, University of Gent, student Linguistics and literature
First, I felt stupid, even after reading the information kit we received. I’m not really a biologist, I’m more interested in linguistics… But when moderator Rolland told us that we were going to get a small presentation about the different projects first, before the actual debate, I felt relieved. I was honestly quite surprised by the project that the team from Leuven presented. I mean: a bacteria that can freeze and defrost, how cool sounds that?! The presentation made by the team from Brussels was a bit less interesting in my opinion, but that’s just my idea. Maybe it’s because it seemed to be more theoretical, and as I said, I’m not really a biologist, let alone a synthetic biologist… After all this, the debate began. The Professors were introduced one by one and we, the audience, immediately noticed that Professor Van Helden was the biggest critic. The questions he had were grounded but the answers of the students were satisfying and this showed us that there is still quite a gap between the theory of synthetic biology and the practical use of it. Professor De Tavernier posed the obvious question: should or should we not use the creations of synthetic biology in nature, to get rid of certain diseases for example? Eventually, it seems that an investigation of every case is the best solution. Professor Robben and Professor André were interested in the creation of the bacteria and they convinced us of the fact that it’s a lot more than just changing some thingies. All in all, the biggest concern of everyone in the auditorium seemed to be safety, and that’s the way it should be!

Peter Oomsels, aged 24, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, PhD student Law
The synthetic biology debate, organized by the K.U.Leuven iGEM team, was an eye opener for me for two reasons.
First, I was baffled by the enormous potential GMO’s and synthetic biology have to reshape production of valuable resources, to impact the geographical, economical and political distribution of those resources, and to tackle the various challenges we will have to cope with in the future. After the debate, I felt strengthened in my views about the crucial role these new technologies might play in future societies.
Secondly, I was surprised to see that the scientists developing these new technologies do not seem to be aware of the potentially huge societal shifts they are contributing to. They seemed to be very much aware of the biological and chemical risks involved with their project. They are educated to calculate and prepare for these risks and deserve the public’s trust in that respect. However, they did not seem to consider any societal impact their work might have. While I have faith in the scientific expertise concerning environmental and safety issues, I do feel worried about the lack of that societal perspective in the scientists’ education- and research culture. Keeping the positive and negative impacts of the industrial revolution in mind, I find it hard to believe that scientists are not trained to consider the societal, economical and political impact of their research.
The debate was very illuminating in that respect. I am convinced that GMO and synthetic biology research are incredibly important fields of science with a lot of potential, but the lack of a societal perspective (also, but not only in risk assesment) is a flaw that should be covered if scientific research intends to be of societal value and wishes to build the public’s support. Scientists that shape societies have to engage themselves in that debate, and need proper training to do so.

"Expert systems are a distinguishing feature of modern societies (Giddens). For expert systems to be used effectively, they depend on trust, namely on those who benefit from expert systems to be able to place blind confidence in them.(...)
Expert systems develop their own esoteric languages, distinctive values, and particular practices that can be neither fully articulated nor completely appreciated or understood by those who do not practice them.”
(H. Tsoukas, 1997)

Applied to the synthetic biology debate, it therefore seems overly optimistic to expect the public to fully participate in the debate because it does not fully understand the esotheric language, values and practices of this field of science. This is exactly why scientists need to take the lead in the societal debate. If the mountain won't come to Muhammad, Muhammad will go to the mountain.Scientists have to take their place in these societies and prepare themselves to engage in the scientific AND the societal discussion that is sure to follow in the near future.

Aurore Mahoro, aged 25, Master degree in International business economics at KUL, working at PSA Antwerp
As an economist this debate was a good opportunity in order to gain more insight on synthetic biology and GMOs. Before the debate, I thought that synthetic biology and GMOs were synonyms.
Besides the fulfilled curiosity for understanding the difference between synthetic biology and GMO, there are three insights that captured my attention during the debate.
First introduced by Prof. Bruno André, the risks associated with synthetic biology. Although not everyone in society can understand the detailed concept of synthetic biology and GMO, the society has to be aware of the benefits and the risks that are tied to this.
Second was the discussion about whether the scientists should put more effort in informing the society! During debate according to me the conclusion was that if the people were interested they could find enough information on the internet. However my personal opinion is that the scientists should put more effort in promoting science and provide information that could be understood by non- biological scientists! Although I did not understand every technical term that was used during debate, the debate was an attractive way of getting non-biological scientists in touch with biological science, more specific with synthetic biology.
Third approach that captured my attention was introduced by Prof. De Tavernier the moral and ethic questions that are linked to synthetic biology however this insight was not discussed extensively!

To all KULs working on this project: I wish you much luck and keep up the good work. Thank you for the interesting evening!