ELSI and Synthetic Cells


When I say ELSI, many of you might think of Elsie the Cow. She is the iconic symbol of Borden dairy products. I remember her soothing television voice, assuring us that Borden milk and cheese were wholesome and fresh. She ended with, “if it’s Borden’s, its’s got to be good!”

There is a different kind of ELSI, one that also should assure us that the products are wholesome and safe. The ELSI I’m referring to is the acronym for Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues. ELSI was a part of the project mapping the human genome. ELSI is not the only approach to bioethics, but it’s a helpful model to understand. Let’s try this with the synthetic cell.

You may remember I discussed this scientific breakthrough in detail in a previous commentary. Essentially, researchers were able to build a made to order chromosome, and insert it into a bacteria cell, which transformed it into a different kind of bacteria.

ELSI reflection starts with E: ethics. The ethics of the synthetic cell is the first issue to be considered by the President’s new Commission for the Study of Bioethics. Here are some of the higher level questions they should consider: What does the man made cell say about humanity’s ability to create life? The research team synthesized DNA, not an entire cell; is that the same thing as creating life? If so, then is life just genetic information? That’s what the primary inventor believes.

We should also think about our ability to control nature. How does this exercise of ingenious creative power affect our relationship to the rest of the created order? Do we risk losing our capacity for awe? What about the temptation to pride and presumption, the claim that we can create anything we want, limited only by our own imagination?

Second tier ethical questions have to do with issues such as consequences. What will it do? We’re told of the wonderful potential for alternative fuels, toxic waste and oil spill clean-up, and rapid response vaccines. But, there are concerns that engineered cells could potentially escape the lab and pollute the environment, with unpredictable effects. Julian Savulescu warns that “This could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable.”[1] Disasters are not inevitable or a deal breaker, but at watershed moments like this, we must recognize and assess the potential fallout.

L: legal questions deal with such issues as whether this innovation can be patented, whether any regulations have been violated, and whether this should be guided by national law or international agreements.

Finally, SI: social issues revolve around questions such as the potential benefits and risks, the just use of financial and human resources, and the right of the public to address our concerns through public policy and guidelines. In this brand-new area of technology, we can have fruitful dialogue based on good science.

You may be frustrated with all these questions and no answers. But that means that we can still shape good guidelines in this novel area. We want scientific “products” to be wholesome and safe. Elsie the Cow would approve.

[1] Fiona Macrae, “Scientist Accused of Playing God after Creating Aartificial Life by Making Designer Microbe from Scratch—But Could It Wipe Out Humanity?” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1279988/Artificial-life-created-craig-Venter--wipe-humanity.html. Daily Mail, June 3, 2010.


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