Bioethics Statement

About Bioethics

Bioethics is a philosophical term that integrates social, legal, cultural and other limits that are derived from scientific and technological development. The first time that the word "bioethics" was used was in 1926 by Fritz Jahr. In 1976 the "Belmond report" was created, which referred to research and it was actually based on the concepts of respect, beneficence and justice.

Our team decided to analyze bioethical implications of our project in order to prove that, not only does it not pose any risk for our society, but that it can also prove to be beneficial for the general good. Moreover, we would like to emphasize on the fact that as members of the iGEM community we believe that non-scientific communities such as humanitarians, and generally people from all circles of life should actively engage in research in a democratic fashion. This notion of ours can be traced back to the birth of democracy in Athens, 2500 years ago! Consequently, in this section of our wiki we want to reinforce our position on bioethics. We do so by presenting interesting data from interviews we conducted with Dr. Mollaki and Dr. Matthiopoulos that gave us the opportunity to discuss about Bioethics in Synthetic Biology in general, as well as to examine our own project’s bioethical implications. Dr. Vavitsas and Dr. Papalois expressed their opinions on bioethics, too.

Our first priority was to ensure that our project does not expose our society to danger. As Dr. Mollaki commented, our project is a DIY science project, which means that it could be used by biohackers with minimal equipment. Therefore, we should take into consideration that this could evoke distrust from the general public. She suggested that the danger of "biohacking" could be minimized by utilizing Responsible Science. This could be achieved through sufficient education of scientists, by offering fact-checked and evidence-based information to the public and possible consumers and, furthermore, by guaranteeing the safe use of biotechnology products by applying security control, if possible, before any sale. Moreover, MEDEA is a synthetic biology project that makes use of simulation systems. Despite the great opportunities that modeling provides to synthetic biology, hacking of sensitive data and the malicious use of them pose considerable threats, thus necessitating the implementation of protection measures. While Dr. Mollaki pointed out the possibility of biohacking, Dr. Matthiopoulos claimed that there is a minor probability of such events occurring, due to the fact that bio-terrorism or bio-hacking are much more complicated than terrorism and hacking provided by already existing technologies. The same belief shared Dr. Vavitsas, the fact that it is difficult to create something dangerous with the tools of synthetic biology since there are less complicated tools that are not related to synthetic biology for these purposes.

Another major issue that both Dr. Mollaki and Dr. Matthiopoulos mentioned was the environmental risks that our project could pose. Dr. Matthiopoulos highlighted the fact that there is a slightly increased risk of non-predictable and/or undesired interactions of our products (new aptamers that do not connect to the target) with the environment, since our genetic system involves non-controlled mutations (of aptamers). To minimize this danger, he suggested that we are careful with our lab waste, such as aptamers that failed to bind to our target molecule. More on our considerations on this issue can be found on the Safety page.

Another issue that our interviewees pointed out was the general public’s scaremongering. Dr. Vavitsas commented about it that sometimes, issues like political polarization or clickbait articles can contribute to this. Regarding this matter, both Dr. Mollaki and Dr. Matthiopoulos believe that promoting Science, in a vulgarized way, and structured dialogue between people of different backgrounds will make it more easily well-received by everyone and, as a result, the fear of the unknown will be reduced. Dr. Vavitsas and Dr. Matthiopoulos also believe that the public should be convinced that synthetic biology can help find solutions to societal problems by using logical arguments. Dr. Mollaki added that we should not be afraid of contrasting opinions, since they can result and fruitful discussions. Our team holds the strong belief that every person should be aware of the basic principles of Science and Synthetic Biology, principles that could possibly be a part of our daily lives in a few years.

An important part on the theme of good communication that should not be omitted is in the scientific community. Scientits’ morals can play a very a substantial role in achieving this. Dr. Vavitsas told us that communication and team spirit could result in rapid science advances. He also said that working collectively could also help set goals as a scientific community as a whole, regarding the needs of each country. Dr. Papalois realized the need for a global alliance, which would be especially useful to the establishment of sufficient communication globally, as well as to a better examination of bioethical issues that could emerge in every part of the world.

Last but not least, Dr. Papalois stated about the field of synthetic biology that it could be both a useful and a harmful tool, like a knife, depending on the utilization that someone may do and someone’s ethos. He also said that this field should be studied closely and also a stricter review of the scientific literature published is needed, considering its rapid progress and recent emergence.

Our project has an ambitious direction, which aims to tackle many societal issues, through the wide range of applications that it can possibly have, and as a result improve many people's lives. Aptamers could possibly be used in Medicine as an alternative, cheaper and harmless therapeutic choice in a variety of morbid conditions, and as diagnostics tools. We strive to promote aptamers and make them more accessible to the scientific and non-scientific communities. This is an effort of ours to make the field of aptamers, hence Science, a little bit more accessible to the world. Having as a boost the vision of a better world, we are undoubtedly motivated to make people’s lives better.

Our thoughts on bioethics:

We believe that Ethics is an integral part of the fields of Science and Technology. There are a lot of different factors to consider when trying to approach the ethical aspects of them, especially when we attempt to do that for the newly emerged field of Synthetic Biology. While searching the scientific literature we realized that there are various definitions of what Synthetic Biology really is, but not a single completely adequate. One that could partially be satisfactory is that Synthetic Biology is more than just another field in Biology or Engineering. It’s a fusion of these two, in ways that can help you design and build entirely new systems or copy the already existing ones artificially.

Driven by this first contemplation, we soon came to realize that there are a lot of different things that people ignore or misunderstand on a daily basis, starting from a simple question, like: What exactly is Synthetic Biology?”. Imagine now that Synthetic Biology is a huge field that can open the doors for new discoveries that no human has ever imagined. Wouldn’t it be a priority to inform everyone of what changes this can bring to the world that we live in and the future?

Humans can make a huge impact on the world and earth in general. Out of all the living creatures, they have the most power over many elements that the world we live in consists of. However, we should never forget that earth has also power over humans. As we understand, it is a bidirectional “relationship”. The same pattern can be seen when we’re talking about Science and Humans. Scientists use Science to make scientific advances, but at the same time this has a direct impact on them and to the society as a whole. It is, therefore, a moral requirement for scientists, first and foremost, to ensure that they work responsibly. Also, it is important to remember that all scientists and researchers work for the same goals. Every new finding should be shared with the scientific and research community and support the spirit of collectivity. Before performing any scientific work, someone should always wonder how this can help the scientific community and the society in general.

Next, we’re going to talk about communication between Science and Society, outside of the scientific community. Scientific advances have a profound impact not only on the present, but also on the future generations, as well as the other species that live on Earth, and the environment. One should never forget that each of these display specific needs and weaknesses that are unique, yet equally important So, one major direction of Synthetic Biology should be focusing on the public benefit and avoiding harm. Achieving this can be done in a lot of different ways. There should always be an open dialogue between scientists the public, in a way that all opinions are heard in a context of respect, prudence and open-mindedness. Also, scientists should never take for granted that something is obvious to the public. Understanding and patience are key factors to help build strong communication foundations. The feedback of the nonscientific community should also play a role in what goals the scientific community sets to achieve.

Lastly and very important, is access to societal groups which are sometimes overlooked. The scientific community should try to be the voice of groups of people who cannot represent themselves in the society. This could be achieved by making scientific discoveries which could help increase economic opportunities and not worsen the poor financial conditions of people even more. Emphasis should be given on a broad technological distribution as well.

Inspired by team Marburg 2018, one thing that we would like to point out is that there should be given extra attention to the tools for access for people with disabilities. In iGEM, gender equality is supported a lot, but the support of diversity should also emphasize on the access to science for everyone who faces difficulties due to personal health reasons. Helpful tools could be provided beforehand, so that every team could have in mind from the start how to build a disability friendly wiki. The iGEM Diversity Committee could add a page on the official iGEM website with helpful instructions as an addition to the definition of diversity in science.

1. Mandal, J., Ponnambath, D. K. & Parija, S. C. Bioethics: A brief review. Trop Parasitol 7, 5–7 (2017).
2.Douglas, T. & Savulescu, J. Synthetic biology and the ethics of knowledge. J Med Ethics 36, 687–693 (2010).