Hub Zwart: to avoid dual use, steer synthetic cell research towards sustainability

Research into synthetic cells offers chances for reconciliation between technology and nature, but only if scientists, politicians, and companies are willing to make hard choices now, in order to steer the outcomes in a positive direction. Professor and philosopher Hub Zwart: “Take history’s teachings about nuclear energy and the internet to heart: consider the consequences of synthetic cells at an earlier stage and aim towards sustainable applications.”

Professor Hub Zwart, Philosopher and dean of Erasmus School of Philosophy in Rotterdam, is one of the scientists connected to the BaSyC (Building a Synthetic Cell) research program, a joined effort by six Dutch research institutions aimed at creating an autonomous, self-reproducing synthetic cell. He investigates how genomics, brain research, and synthetic biology can change our fundamental views about life, technology, and humanity:

“The research into synthetic cells at BaSyC is not only interesting from a scientific viewpoint,” Zwart explains. “Researchers are asking philosophical and ethical questions already at an early stage: what is life? The question and its answer is changing along with with our growing understanding: where lies the boundary between life and not-life? Do we know what we are doing with this research? What kind of applications will come from synthetic cells and how can we manage them?”

Do you see similarities when you compare the research area of synthetic cells with other scientific fields in which ethical-philosophical questions play a role?

“We can observe a trend similar to the one in the area of synthetic cells, in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence: namely the process of the artifact – the artificial thing like the robot, the computer or in our case the synthetic cell – reaching ever closer to the world of living things and living processes. The boundary between life and not-life, once very rigid, now seems to become more fluid. Convergence is taking place, with many research areas lining up towards the boundary between life and not-life.”

What are you working on at the moment with regard to synthetic cell research?

“I keep track of what is going on in the laboratory on the one hand, through conversations with colleagues active in the BaSyC consortium; I make use of my library’s literary imagination on the other. People have been writing about life in the lab and manufacturing life for two centuries – think about Goethe, Faust, and Marry Shelley with Frankenstein. How do those visions of philosophy, literature and science overlap? Now that life ‘in the lab’ is getting closer to reality, the written word is nearing the work in the lab.”

Can you give an example of such discussions about the boundaries of life?

“One question I ask colleagues in the lab about what they are creating: in what way would this entity mimic a living cell? It appears that a synthetic cell is less autonomous and needs more support and sustenance than a living cell. No cell is self-sufficient of course, but the artificial cell might well be structurally much more dependent and fragile. For now, this means the living cell maintains her aura of complexity and beauty: we can come close to mimicking it, but we are far from technical reproducibility of life.”

What do you consider to be chances and threats for technology originating from this research?

“Mimicking life – biomimicry –  is an important movement in technology at the moment where synthetic cells can play a large role, also towards sustainability. We tend to see nature primarily as a resource, but if we learn to work together with the intelligent systems we discern in nature, it will be much better for the planet. The research into synthetic cells offers that reconciliation between technology and nature. But it will not come about on its own accord: as a scientist, you have to keep those positive chances in mind, otherwise, you are naive and bound to lose track of them.”

Does Murphy’s Law apply here: “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong”?

“We know from the past that if we don’t think about the societal impact of technological developments early on, we can easily lose grip on the technology and the result can shape up very differently from what we are aiming for. Take the Manhattan Project, for example: originally led by scientists, the atomic bomb was used by the army. It still feeds the nuclear arms race we see around the world today. The internet is another example of a technology set up by scientists and embraced in the beginning all over the world, which turns out to be naïve: the world wide web does not connect, but paradoxically exacerbates tensions. It leads to estrangement and polarization, because people dwell in their own digital worlds.”

In which direction should we steer synthetic cell research, ethically?

“Right now, scientists, policymakers, companies and citizens should already exchange insights about the impact of synthetic cell research, if we want to be able to steer synthetic cell technologies into a sustainable direction. They should ask themselves: how can synthetic cells contribute to the development of sustainable technologies? Think of contributions in the area of COVID vaccines for example, or to combat antibiotic resistance, but also in a more general way: creating biocompatible and eco-compatible technologies. And how do we prevent dual use: applications which you are actively against?”

An example of dual use that comes to mind is the military interest in research mimicking aspects of living cells, like their armor. How can we reduce immoral applications of this research?

“If you think about applications, you should always consider military applications as well. Some biomaterials are perfect for military usage like bulletproof vests: the current vests are made of inorganic material, heavy and unwieldy. These developments in materials can lead to the making of skin-like biomaterials which are sturdy and flexible. However, if we leave demand for applications open to anyone – a ‘we’ll see’ attitude – we relinquish control of the future, and we should avoid that.”

How can the European Synthetic Cell Initiative contribute to this preferred sustainable direction?

“If you want to get support on a European level as a scientist, you have to show you invest on that level. The Dutch BaSyC can keep its focus on building a synthetic cell, but on the European level cooperation cannot stay noncommittal. This anticipating should take the shape of a group process, a collective learning process: reflection in a broader context. I expect that the European financing organization will demand this as well: Europe will want to encourage not any technology, but technology that’s sustainable for society and ecology. This means the science will stop being free from obligations.”

More information:

The Future Panel on Synthetic Life of the Dutch BaSyC (Building a Synthetic Cell) consortium is a social laboratory for the international dialogue on current and future synthetic cell research, such as the roles and responsibilities of government, industry, science, and society and the challenges and priorities for value-driven development of synthetic cells. In a recent paper, the Future Panel defined several actions currently necessary in the field of synthetic cell research, including:

  • Give social science and humanities research an integral place in current and future synthetic cell research so as to increase the social–ethical reflexivity of scientists and better integrate ethical and socioeconomic concerns into the practices and strategy of scientists and companies.
  • Initiate a broad, international, constructive public dialogue on how synthetic cell technology can be developed in a socially responsible manner.
  • Engage scientific, corporate, civil society, public, and government actors in this international dialogue.

The Future Panel will publish its final recommendation at the end of 2021 on the BaSyC website.