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Taking a fresh look at hopes, fears and values associated with synthetic biology by Franziska Oeschger

by Franziska Oeschger

Synthetic biology has started to enter the market and public perception. An interdisciplinary panel of young scientists discusses the hopes, fears and values associated with this maturing technology.

Disparate perceptions of risks

Synthetic biology has recently been brought into the headlines in connection with the Zika virus and possible strategies to control its transmission (including in this PLOS blog). Genome editing in mosquitoes was also one of the examples evoked to illustrate the hopes and fears linked to synthetic biology at a recent panel discussion in Lausanne, Switzerland. One panellist warned that reducing genetic diversity of mosquitoes – for instance by inducing sterility in local populations – could have drastic ecological consequences, as these insects are an important part of food chains. Another participant objected that the Zika-transmitting mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti and A. albopictus) are actually invasive species to the Americas that have displaced the native mosquitoes. The two species were introduced by international food transports, which “nobody really worries about […] because that’s the way we live, that’s the way humanity has decided to keep its living standards.” Toxic chemicals are already widely used to control mosquito populations. According to this participant, the example illustrates our disparate risk perception: the largely unknown risks of new technologies (such as genome editing) are systematically perceived to be much greater than the risk of established technologies (i.e. chemical products), whose negative consequences are known and apparent while the risks of traditional human activities (i.e. global transport) are rarely considered.

Attitudes towards technology

Indeed, the discussion revealed diametrically opposed attitudes towards new technologies among the panellists – an observation reported previously, and in more detail, by others (Rathenau Instituut). According to several participants, new technologies are too quickly hailed as revolutionary solutions to large-scale problems that go far beyond merely technical challenges and require more integrative solutions. In the words of one panellist: “Synthetic biology continues [on] the path of technological fixing – and we have enough historical evidence to show that this is highly problematic and simply not working. [It is a continuation of the idea that] we need new technologies to fix problems that were actually caused by previous technologies.”

In addition, even so-called successful technologies usually come with hidden costs, such as exploitative or ecologically disastrous production methods as often in the case of mobile phones. New products moreover usually replace previously established markets and reshape power relationships between the stakeholders. For instance, the malaria-drug artemisinin has until recently been primarily produced by traditional methods, often supported by microcredit programs, now partly being replaced by synthetic biology.

Other participants showed greater confidence in technological progress, which they primarily consider as an opportunity to address challenges in a new way. They emphasized that technologies can produce completely new and better products or replace expensive or otherwise disadvantageous production methods for the benefit of many. For example, the hormone insulin can now be produced in genetically modified microorganisms instead of resorting to animal sources. Although these participants had a supportive take on technologies, they also emphasized that not every application should be automatically pursued but that the risks need to be assessed for each case individually. This position is exemplified by the statement: “For synthetic biology, we lack at the moment the hindsight to see what worked or not, but we have to go forward and see if it goes well. We should avoid certain paths, that we know are dangerous, but we need to go.

An interdisciplinary panel of young scientists discusses synthetic biology (Image: Shem Johnson).

Value-neutral or value-laden science

Many panellists shared the opinion that a technology or a science, including synthetic biology, in itself is neutral, and that the individual applications need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In parallel, it was emphasized that a large part of research in synthetic biology is not aimed at developing new applications, but at creating knowledge of biological processes in line with Richard Feynman’s statement ”what I cannot create I do not understand”.

Others took the stance that science cannot be neutral; that research is part of a socio-economic system, financed by public grants and sponsoring. Favouring one research direction over another is a choice based on certain socio-economic factors and values that need to be brought into the open. In addition, synthetic biologists themselves often justify their research by referring to future applications. It thus seems imperative to address the purpose of synthetic biology, and not to view it simply as a way to create new knowledge.

Living organisms as biological machines

Many issues evoked when discussing synthetic biology are thus associated with all new technologies. At least one other theme stood out as a specific element of synthetic biology; in the words of one panellist: “Synthetic biology brings a new perception of what we think is a living organism because we [now] have the image of microorganisms as machines.” For some participants, this philosophical question on the status of life touches the core of controversy in synthetic biology. “This is the basic stuff. It’s very violent to turn the status of life into a machinery. […] This is a war on the autonomy of life.” For others, living organisms – including our own body – may already be viewed as biological machines, a concept that they feel comfortable with. “Would it disturb you if you were just a biological machine? Personally, it doesn’t disturb me, I function anyway.”

Governance and responsibility

The discussions revealed that debate in synthetic biology appears not centred on tangible benefits and quantifiable threats, but primarily on the associated values (for a more in-depth discussion on values in synthetic biology see, for example, this Synergene workshop). All this raises questions of governance and responsibility:

  • How can we decide as a society whether synthetic biology is good or bad?
  • Who is responsible for the outcomes?

In 2015, the iGEM team of the EPF Lausanne conducted a small public survey and found that 49% of respondents put the responsibility for research ethics primarily in the hands of researchers themselves, 28% considered the politicans as most responsible, and 22% the public. Many panellists agreed that scientists themselves play an important part in the governance of research. As one panellist put it, “I think scientists are more or less reflexive individuals […]. They are not all “mad scientists” who want to get ahead, create patents, get benefits. When it comes to some scientists going in this direction, their peers […] should say ‘hey, we’re crossing the borders here, you should not be doing this’ ”. Other voices objected to the idea that researchers should take the primary responsibility for governance. “I feel that as a society the only power we have is through legislation and by electing people into legislative bodies; then it’s their job to regulate research.“

While most participants agreed on the importance of regulations, they also emphasized that any regulation on synthetic biology would need to be international to have effect. There was also concern that “the speed of the development of technologies is always much higher than the speed of understanding, democratic debate, decision-making and regulation”. This worry was echoed in the statement: “We shouldn’t’ forget that Switzerland is relatively small – I hear of colleagues at MIT that get 70 million [dollars] to work on certain things – then I think: what are we talking about here? They just go ahead and do things. […] Are we ever going to stop these people?”

Researchers and “the public”

Some panellists voiced fundamental criticisms of the framing of the question on governance and responsibility. In their view, the establishment of different groups such as “researchers” and “the public” is arbitrary and simplistic, ignoring the true complexity of the landscape. Researchers are also citizens, and as such part of “the public”, while knowledge is not only produced by academic researchers, but also by other institutions such as think-tanks and NGOs. Rather than trying to identify and include different expert groups into the decision-making process, “we should […] open up these fora not on the basis of the knowledge that the different alleged experts can bring in but on the basis of the values […]“.


The panel discussion was an attempt to bring together various perspectives on synthetic biology in Switzerland. The lively and informative debate showed that there is great interest and openness from many scientists to engage in such activities. The discussion also suggested that controversy about synthetic biology will likely not only focus on specific risks and opportunities, but also on questions of underlying values and worldviews. In the words of Claire Marris and Nikolas Rose, two sociologists who have been engaged in science dialogue for many years: “Science is creative, exciting and future-oriented and most synthetic biologists, like most people, do want to ‘make life better’. But this means different things to different people […].“


This blog post summarizes a panel discussion organized by the Forum for Genetic Research of the Swiss Academy of Sciences. The discussion brought together a panel of young scientists from various backgrounds including synthetic biology, biotechnology, ecology, social sciences, ethics, economy and philosophy for a lively two-hour debate that included its audience. The event was held on February 16th under the title “Research breakthroughs and social impact: young scientists debate synthetic biology” at the Life Sciences Switzerland Annual Meeting in Lausanne. It was presented in association with the BIO•FICTION Science, Art & Film Festival and Life Sciences Switzerland (LS2).

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