Yeast, CO2 emissions and God: the amazing world of Synthetic Biology and its challenges for the EU
A new field of research is emerging that poses crucial ethical questions which have to be addressed.
« And man made life ». It was with this ‘catchy’ phrase that a major international news magazine some time ago announced the creation, by two American biologists, Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, of a bacterium with an artificial genome; this is the creation of a living creature without any ancestor. Venter, who is also recognized as one of the first to sequence the human genome (and by the first ever sequencing of the genome of any living organism, again, a bacterium), astounded the scientific community and public opinion once more in March last by now synthesising an artificial chromosome for a creature with complex cells, a yeast chromosome.
This is what Synthetic Biology (SynBio) is all about: it is a new research field defined by its aim of modifying “existing organisms by designing and synthesising artificial genes (…) and complete biological systems in order to (…) perform new and useful functions” (including functions that are not known in nature). This definition was provided in an Opinion issued in November 2009 by the European Group on Ethics, an advisory body to the European Commission, devoted to “Ethics of Synthetic Biology”.
The applicable EU regulatory framework is not unified and includes the pieces of legislation which govern the various applications of SynBio, including the legislation concerning GMOs; medicinal products; medical devices and in vitro diagnostic medical devices; gene therapy; clinical trials; cosmetic products; chemicals; among others.
Furthermore, Horizon 2020, the EU Research and Innovation framework programme for 2014-2020, comprises, as one of its specific objectives under the pillar ‘Industrial Leadership’, the objective related to leadership in enabling and industrial technologies. It aims at developing “competitive, sustainable, safe and innovative industrial products and processes and contribute as an innovation driver in a number of European sectors, like agriculture, forestry, food, energy, chemical and health as well as the knowledge-based bioeconomy”. Among these technologies lies biotechnology, which includes SynBio.
In this context, five calls for proposals have already been launched, three of them, however, under the pillar ‘Societal Challenges’ of the programme, and one under the pillar ‘Excellent Science’. The total budget for these calls amounts to 423.9 million euros. Two calls are still open.
One such call aims at achieving a technological breakthrough – possibly based in SynBio – for converting CO2 (originating from the use of fossil resources), either from the atmosphere or captured in industrial processes, into feedstock for chemical production. Such a sustainable alternative resource will lead to industrial processes with zero or even negative greenhouse gas emissions and therefore mitigate climate change. Another call, in the same field of energy, aims at developing new technologies of sustainable biofuels, that do not compete with food or feed production for resources, through improving conversion efficiency or enlargement of the biomass feedstock basis, for example. This will enable a significant cost reduction which will eventually permit favourable competition with fossil fuels. Finally, it is noteworthy to mention a call that aims at scientific breakthroughs on SynBio that spur innovation across sectors such as healthcare (drugs, vaccines and diagnostic agents), energy, materials, chemicals, environmental technologies or agriculture and also aims at the technological validation of SynBio derived products. Interestingly, emphasis is also put on risk assessment and ethical, societal and intellectual property aspects that should also be an integral part of the proposals.
Indeed, SynBio poses significant ethical questions related to biosafety and biodiversity (and intergenerational justice) and also biosecurity (linked with bioterrorism and bioweapons of mass destruction); the role of the precautionary principle; freedom of research and the principle of accountability and responsibility; and access to the results of the research (international justice but also the question of patenting v. open access). Above all, SynBio poses the magna quaestio of the very meaning of life and of the permissibility of its manipulation by mankind. At the limit, if man can already ‘make life’, one might wonder: is God still necessary?