Bioethics Blogs

Synthetic life and biodiversity

Written by Dr Chris Gyngell

Last year, the first truly novel synthetic life form was created. The Minimal Cell created by the Venter Lab, contains the smallest genome of any known independent organism.[1] While the first synthetic microbe was created in 2010, that was simply a like for like synthetic copy of the genome of an existing bacterium.  Nothing like the Minimal Cell exists in nature.

This great advance in synthetic biology comes at a time where natural life forms are being manipulated in ways never seen before.  The CRISPR gene editing system has been used to create hulk-like dogs, malaria proof mosquitoes, drought resistant wheat and hornless cows. The list of CRISPR-altered animals grows by the month.

Such developments hasten the need for a systematic analysis of the ethics of creating new forms of life. In a recent paper[2], Julian Savulescu and I draw attention to how thoughts regarding the value of biodiversity may bear on this question.

The idea that biodiversity is valuable is ubiquitous. The United Nations “Convention on Biodiversity”, signed by over 160 countries, recognises the “intrinsic value of biological diversity”.[3]  The idea that biodiversity is valuable has also greatly influenced the commercial sector and is a cornerstone of the modern corporate social responsibility movement. The value of biodiversity has even been recognised by the Catholic Church. Pope Francis devotes an entire section of his Encyclical Letter, “On Care For Our Common Home” to the Loss of Biodiversity, describing a new Sin, the destruction of biological diversity.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.