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Published in: NanoEthics 1/2020

01-05-2020 | Introduction

Philosophy and Synthetic Biology: the BrisSynBio Experiment

Authors: Darian Meacham, Miguel Prado Casanova

Published in: NanoEthics | Issue 1/2020

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The affinity or attraction of philosophy to “synthetic biology” starts already with the difficulty in defining synthetic biology or identifying clearly its origins (see [ 1] for a discussion of this from a molecular biology standpoint). While “synthetic biology” in its current incarnation is generally understood to have coalesced as an umbrella term around the beginning of the current century, usage of the term in the same sense that it is used today dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century—in 1912, Stephane Leduc published a book titled La Biologie Synthétique crediting Moritz Traube with the creation of the first artificial cell. 1 This definitional problem, including the sub-question of what techniques and applications do or do not fall under the umbrella of synthetic biology, takes on historical, epistemological and even ontological significance. However, adding to the philosophical intrigue of synthetic biology is that historical and epistemological questions in the field are closely intertwined not only with ethical and even ontological issues but also with the perceived economic and subsequent political potentials of synthetic biology. For example, the “8 great technologies” programme, through which the BrisSynBio Synthetic Biology Research Centre 2 was funded, 3 was explicitly conceived to “accelerate commercialisation of technologies where the UK is set to be a global leader”. 4 The definition and scope of synthetic biology thus acquires a political, economic and ethical significance as well as an epistemological one. This is also clear in how the European Commission has defined the term. In the EC’s 2005 report on “Synthetic Biology Applying Engineering to Biology”: …
Footnotes
1
This point is credited to Massimiliano Simons. It was made during a presentation on the history of synthetic biology at the Oxford-Bristol-Warwick Synthetic Biology Doctoral Training Centre in March 2019.
 
2
BrisSynBio, a BBSRC/EPSRC-funded Synthetic Biology Research Centre (http://​www.​bristol.​ac.​uk/​brissynbio/​) (last accessed 7 April 2020)
 
3
Of the contributors to this special section, Darian Meacham, Miguel Prado and Michael Reinsborough were partially (Meacham) or completely (Reinsborough) funded by or affiliated (Prado) with BrisSynBio. Massimiliano Simons visited BrisSynBio for a research stay in 2018.
 
5
For a more extensive critical analysis of the institutional and political context of responsible innovation practices at BrisSynBio and more broadly in relation to synthetic biology, see [6].
 
6
Some definitions of synthetic biology explicitly exclude gene editing technologies. We would contend that this is a good example of an attempt at the political as well as scientific-methodological delineation of the field. Likewise, to label the use of CRISPR-cas9 and other “new breeding techniques” in agriculture as not genetic modification—as the mutations caused by these techniques could potentially occur in nature and did not entail the introduction of exogenous genetic code (and hence not falling under existing EU GMO regulation)—reflects a political-economic attempt at delineation of techniques and fields. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in 2018 that new gene editing techniques in agriculture did fall under existing EU GMO regulation [8].
 
7
Braun et al. [10] have provided a helpful literature overview and outlook on the ethical and societal challenges in synthetic biology. The lack of novelty argument was also used to justify the use of “new breeding techniques” as not falling under existing GMO regulation in the ECJ case referred to above. The ECJ’s ruling indicates some of the political and epistemic messiness of the example: “Organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs and are, in principle, subject to the obligations laid down by the GMO Directive. However, organisms obtained by mutagenesis techniques which have conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record are exempt from those obligations, on the understanding that the Member States are free to subject them, in compliance with EU law, to the obligations laid down by the directive or to other obligations” [8].
 
Literature
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4.
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5.
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6.
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14.
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Metadata
Title
Philosophy and Synthetic Biology: the BrisSynBio Experiment
Authors
Darian Meacham
Miguel Prado Casanova
Publication date
01-05-2020
Publisher
Springer Netherlands
Published in
NanoEthics / Issue 1/2020
Print ISSN: 1871-4757
Electronic ISSN: 1871-4765
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/s11569-020-00369-1

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