Synthetic Biology: The Ethics of Artificially Creating Life
By Maggie Stanton
After 20 years, a group of scientists led by J. Craig Venter created a new, synthetic life form. Its name– Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, its purpose– still being discovered with the hope to use the process of creating the Designer Organism to form vaccines. The ability to make life may seem like something from a sci-fi movie, but it is the future. Ido Bachelet, the great mind behind the creation of DNA Nanorobots has stated, “No, no it’s not science fiction… It’s already happening.” Ido Bachelet engineered synthetic DNA Nanorobots used for targeted drug delivery. Both, the Designer Organism and the DNA Nanorobots have been created with the goal of synthetic biology in mind, to build biological systems from scratch in order to eliminate error from natural systems. The DNA Nanorobots raise a question of whether the synthesizing of DNA, is the creation of life? If so, the implications on the definition of life and the way we perceive life would be altered. The Designer Organism raises questions on the rights of artificial life and leads to evaluating the next steps of synthetic biology. This is a significant subject to discuss due to the narrowing gap between natural and artificial and the potential for this technology to change life as we know it. In this way, a discussion about the complicated definition of life, the values of justice and safety, and the theory of consequentialism is necessary.
Table of Contents
- First Example of Synthetic Biology
- Second Example of Synthetic Biology
- Definition of Life- DNA Nanorobots
- Definition of Life- Designer Organism
- Ethical Considerations
- Justice of Synthetic Life
- Safety of DNA Nanorobots
- Future Plans
The difference between a stuffed animal and a dog is very clear cut. The stuffed animal is non-living and the dog is living. With the development of synthetic biology, this borderline between living and non-living entities becomes blurred. There are two main goals of synthetic biology. These are to design biological components and systems or to redesign existing biological systems in order to eliminate natural error. After 20 years of work and research, a group of scientists led by J. Craig Venter created a new, artificial life form accomplishing the first goal. Its name is Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0; its purpose is still being discovered, but the hope is to use the process of creating this designer organism to form vaccines. The ability to make life may seem like something from a scientific fiction movie, but it is the very near future. With the second goal of redesigning biological components in mind, Ido Bachelet, an independent scientist and the great mind behind the creation of DNA nanorobots has stated, “No, no it’s not science fiction… It’s already happening.” Ido Bachelet engineered synthetic DNA nanorobots used for targeted drug delivery. The DNA nanorobots raise a question of whether the synthesizing of DNA is the creation of life? If so, many implications of the definition of life and the way we perceive life would be altered. Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 raises questions on the rights of artificial life and leads to evaluating the next steps of synthetic biology. This is a significant subject to discuss due to the narrowing gap between natural and artificial and the potential for this technology to change life as we know it. In this way, a discussion about the following questions is necessary, how will the definition of life be affected or further complicated due to the creation of artificial life? Should these innovations have rights if they are considered alive? Under what circumstances is it ethical to create life? Is artificial life or innovations made through synthetic biology safe to use for medical treatment?
First Example of Synthetic Biology
Nanotechnology is the managing of matter at the atomic level. In Nanotechnology, the unit of nanometers is used. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter. To put that into perspective, a piece of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick. Ido Bachelet DNA nanorobots are 35 nanometers thick and made up of a single strand of synthetic DNA. “The robots we work with are smaller than the flu virus,” says Professor Gal Kaminka, a scientist involved in the making of the DNA nanorobots. “To illustrate this, if the nanorobot was the size of an average person, let’s say 1.65 meters, then the body in which it works would have to be over four times the diameter of the Earth.” To create their nanorobots, the DNA is folded into a clam shape in order to hold a carrier for existing drugs. The nanorobots are injected with saline into the patient’s bloodstream. There, they are programmed to bypass healthy cells and to deliver drugs to cancer cells. The nanorobot reacts with proteins on the surface of cells to determine if they are cancerous. Once the nanorobot detects a cancer cell, the two halves unhinge and release the drugs. The picture below shows the nanorobot in its off state, or when it is traveling through the bloodstream, and its on state, or when it detects a cancer cell.
One example of a drug that would be found in the nanorobots would be molecules that force cancer cells to undergo apoptosis or self destruction. Currently, the nanorobots in the clinical research phase have been programmed to recognize and to deliver drugs to 12 types of cancer cells. These include cells from solid tumors to white blood cells associated with Leukemia. There have been successful clinical trials with the nanorobots. In a culture, the DNA nanorobots have been able to kill of cancer cells without harming healthy ones. Another trial with cockroaches to monitor the movement of the nanorobots has also been successful. In 2015, the first human trial took place with a terminally ill leukemia patient given a few months to live. Unfortunately, the results of this trial have not been published.
Second Example of Synthetic Biology
After 20 years of work, a group of scientists led by J. Craig Venter created an artificial organism in 2010 named Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0. To create the organism, the scientists started with the genome of the bacteria M.mycoides. Then, 1,078 specific cassettes of DNA, or mobile genetic elements, were made that were 1,080 base pairs long. These cassettes were designed so that the ends of each DNA cassette overlapped each of its neighbors. The DNA then was assembled into a synthetic genome of a yeast cell where it grew as a artificial chromosome. Later, the M. mycoides genome was separated from the yeast cell and transplanted into Mycoplasma Capricolum cells. The final product was a new self- replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome or the synthetic DNA. After this breakthrough, a company called Synthetic Genomics Inc. paired with the JCVI researchers to form a new company called SGVI with the goal of creating artificial vaccines. In 2013, the team of researchers published new methods of creating an artificial influenza vaccine. Since then, the researchers have been working to create a cell with the minimal number of genes necessary for life. Using genes from the synthetic species Mycoplasma Mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, the researchers successfully created life with the smallest genome, JCVI-syn3.0, in 2016. A researcher on the team states, “Our long-term vision is to have the ability to design and build synthetic organisms on demand that perform specific functions that are programmed into the cellular genome” (Weintraub, Karen). With this goal in mind, J.Craig Venter has spoken about using this technology to make synthetic antibiotics and to possibly grow transplanted organs into pigs.
Definition of Life- DNA Nanorobots
DNA is a chemical compound that contains four bases, Adenine, Guanine, Thymine, and Cytosine. The roles of DNA are to store long term information and to encode the sequence of amino acids for the production of proteins. All cellular life contains DNA. If a cell does not contain DNA, then eventually it would die because it would not be able to create proteins or reproduce. So, if DNA is necessary to make something living, is it alone sufficient to make something living? Can DNA nanorobots be considered living? Under what circumstances is the synthesis of DNA, the synthesis of life? In order to answer these questions, I examined different definitions of life in order to prove that DNA, in fact, can be considered living. I looked at a scientific and philosophical definition. The scientific definition was: the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, the ability to maintain homeostasis, and continual change preceding death [Oxford English Dictionary]. The philosophical definition was: having a conscience and being able to distinguish what is right and wrong.
One could use the scientific definition of life to argue that DNA is both living and not living, so the scientific definition alone may not be dispositive. Those who want to use the definition would argue that DNA is living because it is in all animal and plants. In addition, DNA is not an inorganic material as it contains a five carbon sugar, deoxyribose. It replicates, has genes which command functional activity like the creation of proteins, and changes slightly as one ages.
On the other hand, focusing on other sections of the definition would prove the opposite, that the DNA is non living. For instance, it can be claimed that DNA does not reproduce as it only duplicates. To refute, bacteria is considered alive and reproduces through binary fusion. Binary fission is a process in which the parent cell produces duplicate offspring. Also, DNA does not grow or die as it never stops functioning. DNA also cannot maintain homeostasis, DNA is a chemical compound, and DNA is made up of dead material i.e. nucleotides. Therefore, parts of the scientific definition can be used to prove that the creation of DNA is the creation of life, while others prove the opposite.
I believe that the DNA nanorobots can be considered to be living because as referenced before, not all living things fit all criteria for the definition of life. For instance, a bacteria does not reproduce, but it is considered alive. Also, a human is still considering living even when they cannot maintain homeostasis naturally and need extraordinary medical intervention. Especially with a topic as complex as life, I think the title of living and non living can be stretched to describe more abstract things.
Using the philosophical definition, the lines between living and non living are very blurred. One could argue it is clear that DNA is not alive since it does not have a “brain” or a conscience. As a result, the philosophical definition proves that the DNA nanorobots cannot be considered alive. To refute, the product of synthesizing DNA, the nanorobot, could be considered to have a conscience since it is autonomous and makes decisions on whether it should deliver a drug to certain cells. It is autonomous; however, this does not mean it has a conscience. This is because the DNA nanorobots autonomy stems from being programmed in a computer. In my opinion, a conscience is based on moral decision making and the DNA nanorobots do not have this capacity to feel emotions or be bias. According to my interpretation of normative ethics, the DNA nanorobots are not alive.
Overall, there are many different claims when determining whether DNA is alive and as a result the DNA nanorobots are living things. If it was too be considered alive, then a discussion about the justice of synthetic life and the safety of the patient when using them as a treatment is necessary.
Definition of Life- Designer Organism
The DNA nanorobots are on a blurred line between living and nonliving. Considering this, it is more difficult to analyze its implications on the definition of life. Yet, the designer organism is alive because it is a bacteria. This is confirmed by Dr. Venter as he states, “It’s a living species now, part of our planet’s inventory of life” (Sample, Ian). Moreover, the synthesis of Mycoplasma Mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 has opened the opportunity to further define life. In response to the breakthrough, Mark Bedau, a professor of philosophy and humanities at Oregon University, stated:
The ability to make prosthetic genomes marks a significant advance over traditional genetic engineering of individual genes. It raises important scientific and societal issues: we now have an unprecedented opportunity to learn about life. We must develop and perfect new methods for engineering emergence, as this calls for fundamental innovations in precautionary thinking and risk analysis. It will revitalize perennial questions about the significance of life — what it is, why it is important, and what role humans should have in its future.
This illustrates that the creation of synthetic life will encourage finding answers to the rhetorical questions about life asked for so many years. The theory behind this conclusion is that as a community we will learn more about life, when we create it ourselves. However, this leads to significant ethical implications of even though it is for the greater good of the scientific community and society as a whole, is it ethical to create life?
Following the creation of the designer organism, President Barack Obama called the Presidential Commission of BioEthical Issues to meet and discuss synthetic biology. They concluded that the creation of artificial life was morally significant which seems open to interpretation as it only recognizes that a discussion about ethics is important, not if it is morally right or morally wrong.
One side could claim that it is unethical to create life. There are a few ways to framework this argument. The first is through a theological standpoint. “Some people believe that the genetic modification or de novo creation of living organisms encroaches into such a forbidden realm, and hence they believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with these activities” (Buchanan, Allen). Another argument against the creation of artificial life is based on moral character and distinguishes that scientists like J. Craig Venter express a desire for excessive dominance as they are “playing God” with their discoveries. In addition, it can be determined that the creation of life is overstepping the capacity of human knowledge, is radical, and full of uncertainty. A concern is that synthetic biology scientists may not know the limit to their knowledge; this could lead to harmful innovations that question the motive and purpose of the scientists.
On the other hand one could claim that is ethical to create life. Synthetic biology can be a tool to improve life and according to utilitarianism, benefit the greater good. For example, the designer organism can be useful in creating vaccines and antibiotics. In particular, the scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute are currently working to develop a vaccine for Contagious Bovine Pleuropneumonia (CBPP). This disease greatly affects Africa’s economy and people as it harms the livestock and availability of food. This demonstrates how the creation of life has potential to be extremely beneficial for a great number of people, and should not be considered unethical due to its radicality. Additionally, it can be claimed that the creation of artificial life is the next step of progress. We already have the power to edit genes of living things, so creating new genes is the next big breakthrough.
The power that one possess when they have the ability to synthesize and design life is extremely significant. The theory of consequentialism states that the effects of an action determine whether it is ethical or not. If life is created for the benefit of the greater good, then it can be deemed ethical. If this power is abused and this technology is used to impose harm, than it can be determined that creating life is unethical.
Justice of Synthetic Life
In discussing the rights of synthetic life, it is crucial to first analyze what distinguishes artificial life from natural life. In this section, it is important to note that the terms artificial life and synthetic life are used as synonyms. Currently, the forms of synthesized life and natural life are very different. This is because the only form of synthetic life is the bacteria, Mycoplasma Mycoides JCVI-syn1.0. However, brewing in the science community is the synthesizing of an artificial human genome. That is, in the future the creation of artificial human cells and possibly, the creation of an artificial human. Therefore, this discussion of justice of synthetic life is very different now, then it will be in the future.
The factor that makes synthetic life different from natural life is that artificial life is programmed using a computer. In this way, the organism has a purpose that it must achieve since it is written in its genetics code. With regards to justice, the fact that humans have complete control over the organisms produced in terms of its chemical makeup gives synthetic life less rights. Even though humans naturally create other humans, many believe a higher power forms them. Many believe that people are of God and that each person is made by this entity. Moreover, it can be argued that humans who create artificial life have direct power over these synthetic life forms. As a result, this allows the creators of these artificial life forms to restrict the rights of them.
Rights of Mycoplasma Mycoides JCVI-syn1.0
Another idea upon the rights of synthetic life is that it should be equal to the rights of the possible natural “version” of it. For instance, to determine whether the designer organism, Mycoplasma Mycoides JCVI-syn1.0., deserves any rights, I can analyze if natural bacteria has rights and question that conclusion’s ethicality. Currently, humans already dominate bacteria and do not provide them with rights. Though, when the World Health Organization tried to eradicate the smallpox virus in the 1970s, Microbiologist Bernard Dixon raised whether it was ethical to eliminate the virus. With synthetic biology, this debate has altered due to bioterrorism and harm that synthetic bacteria could potentially cause. Peter Singer states, “The argument for extending the principle of equality beyond our own species is simple, so simple that it amounts to no more than a clear understanding of the nature of the principle of equal consideration of interests” (Stafforini, Pablo). This means that actions we do not perform on humans should not be done on non-human things. There should be an equality between all species of life. A leader in this debate, Charles S Cockell, states, “Clearly, human instrumental needs do trump microbes at some level. If they did not, we could not use bleach in our houses…However, we should not be so quick to ridicule ideas about microbial ethics and rights” (Cockell, Charles S). He has discussed the possibility that bacteria should have the right to respect, empathy, and protection. He believes this based on the intrinsic value of bacteria and its possible interests. Cockwell recognizes that bacteria have a biological interest, but questions what other interests it may have when its biology or its DNA, is synthetic.
Autonomy and Justice
As I think about justice in terms of synthetic life, I think about the relationship between a child and their parents. As a child ages and becomes more autonomous, the parents will usually give the child more freedom and as a society, we give them more rights. This leads to a discussion on the role of autonomy when considering the rights of a synthetic organism. If a synthetic organism is autonomous, how does it affect the types of rights, if any, it deserves? To answer this question, we must analyze to what degree synthetic life is autonomous. I conclude that synthetic life has less autonomy than a natural organism due to the fact it’s decision making ability is programmed. This proves how the intersection of autonomy and rights is different from what we see with a typical parent to child relationship as gaining autonomy does not mean more rights, if any, are granted.
Overall, I believe that as synthetic life is created to mimic qualities close to a human, the rights, if any, given should change. As synthetic biology progresses and a greater variety of synthetic life is created, this discussion will become more complex on how being not only synthetic, but autonomous, will affect the rights an organism deserves.
Safety of DNA Nanorobots
Although the DNA nanorobots have been tested through many clinical trials, safety concerns still arise. The first concern is in regards to the DNA nanorobots triggering an immune response. Your body is designed to release an immune response when a foreign object enters the body. The DNA nanorobots were made of DNA because it is biodegradable in order to reduce the likelihood of the body’s response. Yet it is still a significant concern that the patient’s body will trigger one. Also, the locomotion of the DNA nanorobot must be strong in order to travel in the bloodstream. As a result, it has the possibility to cause damage to the patient. However, the potential benefits of the DNA nanorobots outweigh these concerns. The purpose of the DNA nanorobots is to provide a better use of already existing cancer drugs. These already accepted and used cancer drugs are only changing the way they are being delivered. With current treatments, many cancer patients experience pain due to the side effects of their medicines being delivered to healthy cells as well as cancerous ones. With the hopes to eliminate damaging healthy cells, DNA nanorobots provide a safer alternative to current cancer treatments.
Safety of Synthetic Biology
When considering the value of safety in terms of synthetic biology as whole, it is crucial to examine the stakeholders in the future of this technology. These are, the government, companies such us JCVI, and private entities. The government and JCVI have made efforts to solve safety problems; however, they are outdated and ineffective. This ineffectiveness can be proven by examining how people in modern day are conducting unregulated “DIY” or do it yourself synthetic biology experiments.
After Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 was synthesized, President Barack Obama sent a letter to the Commision for the Study of BioEthical Issues demanding a meeting be held. He stated, “It is vital that we as a society consider, in a thoughtful manner, the significance of this kind of scientific development. With the Commission’s collective expertise in the areas of science, policy, and ethical and religious values, I am confident it will carry out this responsibility with the care and attention it deserves” (Presidential Commission). As a result of this letter, the commision met and released five fundamental ethical values that should govern the progression of synthetic biology. These include public beneficence, responsible stewardship, intellectual freedom and responsibility, democratic deliberation, and justice and fairness. The government was trying to ensure that these innovations would inherently increase safety. However, this meeting and report proves ineffective as it has not led to any concrete regulations being created. For instance, in 2015, the Department of Health and Human Services released the, “Screening Framework Guidance for Providers of Synthetic Double-Stranded DNA.” In this document, the balance of encouraging curiosity and progression for innovators while keeping beneficence in mind is attempted. Though, it failed to ensure safety as following these guidelines is voluntary. Itt states, “that no person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for any noncapital offense involving certain violations.” This proves that efforts were made to ensure safety but are ineffective due to its lack of assertiveness. In addition, a similar problem arises with the National Institute of Health:
The NIH has guidelines for constructing and handling recombinant DNA organisms generally, but these guidelines apply only to research conducted by or funded by federal agencies, and do not reach private industry. Although private researchers may voluntarily follow the guidelines, compliance is not required unless the research is federally funded. Thus, private research concerning synthetic biology microbes engineered for chemical production may substantially take place outside of agency oversight.
This shows that when dealing with private companies or groups, the government cannot impose guidelines that were made for the greater good and everyone’s benefit.
In addition, the J. Craig Venter Institute has conducted many of their own studies to ensure safe innovation. In a 20 month study, experts in synthetic biology discussed, “options that would help to enhance biosecurity, foster laboratory safety, and protect the communities and environment outside of laboratories” (Garfinkel, Michele S). However, this study took place in 2007, about 3 years before Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 was even created. This study almost seems incredible as it occurred before one of the biggest controversies and breakthroughs in synthetic biology took place.
As a result of this ineffective regulation, a new trend of “DIY” synthetic biology has spread With synthetic DNA being accessible and inexpensive, anyone with a credit card and knowledge can conduct synthetic biology. “If nefarious biohackers were to create a biological weapon from scratch– a killer that would bounce from host to host, capable of reaching millions of people, unrestrained by time or distance– they would probably begin with some online shopping” (Baumgaertner, Emily). This depicts that the lack of regulation has led to the ability for safety concerns to grow. The main concern is that someone will use this technology to create a bioweapon. At the University of Alberta, scientists have created an extinct relative of smallpox using mail-order DNA. This project took only 6 month and occurred “without a glance from law enforcement officials” (Baumgaertner, Emily). This is extremely alarming and suggests that effective legal action should be imposed by the government to eliminate this possibility of bioterrorism or bioweaponry.
Another concern about synthetic life is that once it is released into society, it will release deadly pathogens and harm the environment. Although a study done by J. Craig Venter Institute, “conclude[d] that the U.S. regulatory agencies have adequate legal authority to address most, but not all, potential environmental, health and safety concerns posed by these organisms (Carter, Sarah R). This proves that more focus needs to be placed towards synthetic biology as products of this field pose serious safety threats to society.
In the future, Ido Bachelet DNA nanorobots will be programmed to have another state called the swarm state. In this state, the DNA nanorobots will be programmed to join with others and perform precision surgery such as spinal surgery. Also, Ido Bachelet is eyeing a new application for his DNA nanorobots in the brain. He hopes that nanorobots in the brain, “can improve or disrupt communication between two specific nerve cells, to erase or strengthen memories and behaviors,” he says. The use of DNA nanorobots is only the future for Ido Bachelet and his team in combining nanotechnology and synthetic biology.
The J. Craig Venter Institute is currently tackling many groundbreaking projects. One experiment focuses on improving the genome of algae in order to create biofuels and biological chemical production. In addition, they are working on developing a type 1 diabetes treatment by combing synthetic biology with microbiome discoveries. Lastly, as stated prior, the institute hoped to use the process of creating Mycoplasma Mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 to create vaccines. They have fulfilled this goal as they are working on a synthetic cytomegalovirus vaccine. A cytomegalovirus is a virus that affect people at all ages so if successful, will definitely benefit the greater good.
Ultimately, the field of synthetic biology has led to the creation of drug delivering DNA nanorobots and a designer organism. These innovations have great potential for the treatment of cancer and for vaccines; nevertheless, they raise ethical concerns about the definition of life, the rights of synthetic organisms, and the safety and regulation of their uses. Through groundbreaking, I believe the main issue with synthetic biology is the scientific fiction aspect and the fact that this technology is extremely complex and mind boggling. To alter this initial response to synthetic biology into being more positive, I think there needs to be better public awareness and more concrete legal action by both the government and the J. Craig Venter Institute. For example, “The laws that cover biotechnology have not been significantly updated in decades, forcing regulators to rely on outdated frameworks to govern new technologies” (Baumgaertner, Emily). One suggestion is to require that synthetic biologists have licenses or that supervision is necessary to conduct a synthetic biology experiment. This way, they are required to follow certain laws, instead of a list of voluntary guidelines. Currently, the government, the J. Craig Venter institute, and other private innovators are working separately; however, I think it is crucial that they congregate and work together to ensure that this technology stays under high regulation with a common goal in mind. The guiding question for past technologies in synthetic biology was, “If a cell is a micro robot created by nature through evolution, why can’t we too make microscopic machines that we program and control?” (Human Paragon). Moreover, in looking at the bigger picture, how will this technology interfere with fate and the process of natural selection? Is the creation of life a violation of human evolution?