Website Report on the SYBHEL Final Conference and Workshops

Website Report on the SYBHEL Final Conference and Workshops

Final Conference

The SYBHEL Final Conference was held in June 2012 at the British Library in London. The conference brought together a range of experts from across Europe. The objective was to discuss and help to revise a draft of the SYBHEL policy recommendations on the ethical and legal issues of synthetic biology and human health.  If you would like a copy of the SYBHEL Report and Policy Recommendations please get in touch via twitter @SYBHEL_Project. We hope that the report will be ready by November 1st 2012.

At the event film and audio interviews were also conducted with many of the participants for public engagement purposes.

A podcast is available here:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

A number of video interviews can be found here

WP3 Panel:

Chair: Alex Calladine

Panel: Iain Brassington, David Hunter, Laurens Landeweerd and James Wilson

Synthetic Biology: James Wilson from Sybhel Project on Vimeo.


WP6 Panel:

Chair: Conor Douglas & Dirk Stemerding

Panel: Michele Garfinkel, Joyce Tait, Henk van den Belt, and Joy Zhang

Synthetic Biology: Joyce Tait – Public Concerns, Public Education from Sybhel Project on Vimeo.


WP5 Panel:

Chair Inigo de Miguel

Panel: Graham Dutfield, Muireann Quigley, David Townend, Vitor dos Santos

Synthetic Biology: Graham Dutfield – Intellectual Property and Patents from Sybhel Project on Vimeo.


WP4 Panel:

Chair: Heather Bradshaw

Panel: Tom Douglas, Robin Pierce, Simon Rippon and Sue Chetwynd

Synthetic Biology: Robin Pierce – The Future of Medicine from Sybhel Project on Vimeo.


WP2 Panel:

Chair: Anna Deplazes

Panel: Sune Holm, Sarah Chan, Joachim Boldt, Markus Schmidt

The History of Synthetic Biology: Markus Schmidt from Sybhel Project on Vimeo.


SYBHEL Hague Workshop

The last of the second round of SYBHEL workshops was hosted in February 2012 by the Rathenau Institute in The Hague. The workshops included experts from around the world to discuss issues ranging from global justice to property and patenting of synthetic biology with respect to human health.

Rathenau Institute

Synthetic Biology for Global Health: A Policy Discussion

The workshop considered a number of policy issues that may arise from synthetic biology with respect to global health, such as;

  • How SynBio can be used to address global health issues?
  • How policy can work to ensure fair and responsible implementation of SynBio on a global level?
  • Conditions necessary to support the use of SynBio for addressing global health

University of Bristol

Synthetic biology and human health: Choosing cure or continuity

This workshop considered various conceptions of health and the impact synthetic biology may have on them. The workshop considered the following questions;

 How might the realities of synthetic biology affect our conceptual structures?

  • What are the implications of synthetic biology for well-being, ethics and justice?
  • How should this conceptual and ethical reasoning be integrated into policy for synthetic biology and human health?

University of Deusto

Synthetic biology & human health: The principles and problems underlying patenting and regulation

This workshop, organised by the University of Deusto, considered issues of property and patenting with regards synthetic biology as it pertains to human health. The workshop considered the following questions;

  •  What should the moral limits be of patenting in synthetic biology as it pertains to human health?
  • What general principles should we adopt for regulating (or self-regulating) synthetic biology as it pertains to human health in Europe?
  • What approach to property and patenting in synthetic biology for human health should we adopt?

 SYBHEL Bristol Workshop

The first of the second round of workshops was held in the summer of 2011 at the University of Bristol and hosted by the Centre for Ethics in Medicine. The workshops were organised by The University of Bristol and the University of Zurich.

University of Bristol

Conceptual Foundations, Methodology and Ethical Frameworks

How should we interpret the essentially contested concepts that will play a foundational role in our normative thinking about synthetic biology and human health? For example, concepts such as justice, risk, public interest, health and dignity.

  • Questions concerning methodology in bioethics. For example should we draw on aspects of political philosophy and consider Rawlsian ideas such as reflective equilibrium to consider the ethical questions posed by synthetic biology and human health?
  • What methods should be employed to connect philosophical foundations to public policy in respect to synthetic biology and human health?

University of Zurich

Synthetic biology & human health: Ethical and regulatory questions raised by the aim of producing new life forms

  • What ethical concerns could the idea of producing synthetic organisms raise and how do these concerns particularly apply to medical applications of SB?
  • What forms of life should we care about?
  • Should people’s different conceptions of life be taken into account when formulating law and public policy?

SYBHEL website report on the first round of workshops.

Written by Anna Deplazes-Zemp, Conor Douglas and Inigo de Miguel.

The first round of workshops have now been completed by the SYBHEL project. These workshops were held across Europe, in Zurich, Bilbao and Brussels. The participants invited to these workshops also came from a range of different countries and disciplinary backgrounds, including bioethics, philosophy, social science and theology as well as scientists currently working in synthetic biology. The workshops reflected the work packages of the SYBHEL project. They considered questions raised by synthetic biology in terms of conceptions of life, methodology, property and the patenting, clinical applications and public policy.

Zurich SYBHEL workshops


IBME (Institute of Biomedical Ethics), University of Zurich

Ethics of Synthetic Life – An Intercultural Dialogue

Zurich, July 5-6, 2010


What happens when synthetic biologists, philosophers, ethicists and experts for different religions get together to discuss questions such as: “what is life”, “can humans synthesize life” and “does the aim of synthesizing living organisms raise moral issues”? Does such a constellation end up in dispute; will the different participants talk at cross-purposes or will there be agreement?

The first SYBHEL workshop organized by the University of Zurich started from the described situation. The aim of the workshop was to take stock of the diversity regarding the concept of life and to understand what the aim of producing new life forms means for holders of different conceptions of life. The workshop participants were asked to introduce their conception of life and to respond to the questions about life mentioned above. In order to link this discussion more closely to synthetic biology different kinds of organisms that are or might be produced by synthetic biology were discussed, for instance bacteria with a designed metabolism, bacteria with a minimal synthetic genome or living protocells. The various backgrounds of the participants resulted neither in serious dispute, nor in endless talking at cross-purposes nor in complete harmony. But each of these elements was present to some extent. There was for instance disagreement whether “life” would have been produced if scientists would manage some day to “make” a living cell from non-living material. Whereas a synthetic biologist held that in this case life would have been synthesized, other participants thought that only the preconditions for life would have been provided, but that life either would emerge by itself or come from other sources. Sometimes, the participants talked at cross-purposes because they used the same words in different ways. This was particularly the case for words such as “needs”, “interests”, “striving”…  For some participants, these terms were necessarily linked to conscious intentions whereas others associated them with all entities who live and thus depend on certain conditions to survive. Finally, we also found certain elements that appeared to be common to all positions, although interpreted in very different terms. For all positions, interaction with and response to the environment appears to be characteristic and essential for living organisms. Moreover, all participants held in one way or another that living organisms incorporate their own “organizing centre”, which means that they are organised and maintained by something, which is part of themselves. Interestingly, all participants agreed that the products of synthetic biology are alive, although they differed about whether this means that life has been produced or not.

This workshop furthered our understanding about the differences between different conceptions of life and the relevance of these differences for the discussions on synthetic biology. In our next workshop, we will focus more specifically on ethical questions and discuss in more detail, how the results of the first workshop pertain to applications of synthetic biology for human health. Moreover, we will also address the question of how one should deal with such a variety of conceptions of life at the level of policy making.


University of Bristol, Centre for Ethics in Medicine

How should bioethics respond to synthetic biology?


Our workshop was held at the picturesque location of the Institute of Biomedical Ethics in Zurich in the summer of 2010. Our workshop focused on the question; How should bioethics respond to synthetic biology?

Our workshop produced a range of high-quality papers in response to this central question and the subsidiary questions posed on the workshop flyer. Participant’s papers investigated questions such as the definition of synthetic biology; whether the process of defining synthetic biology is a neutral exercise in description or a complex political process underpinned by different values. Questions were also raised about the potential dual use of synthetic biology. This is the idea that synthetic biology may be used for bad purposes (such as the creation of biological weapons) as well as creating potentially beneficial medical applications. As such ethical questions were raised as to whether the acquisition and dissemination of scientific knowledge should be subject to greater control.

It was broadly held by many of the workshop participants that while the ethical questions raised by synthetic biology are rather similar to those raised by other forms of biotechnology, the questions raised by synthetic biology are important and require a more careful, thoughtful and deeper philosophical approach than has sometimes occurred in past responses to biotechnology.


To this end, in our next workshop we intend to delve deeper into the conceptual issues that underlie our normative thinking on synthetic biology. We will also consider the ways in which we might draw on other areas of philosophy, for example political philosophy in order to illuminate our thinking on the ethical questions raised by synthetic biology and human health. Finally, we hope that our next workshop we will start to consider the ways in which philosophy can connect and be of benefit to the formulation of public policy.

Bilbao SYBHEL workshops

University of Deusto


On the 4-5 November 2010 a workshop entitled “Synthetic biology & human health: the legal and ethical questions of property and patenting” was held in the beautiful town of Bilbao. The high interest of the topic and the high calibre of the speakers led us to use a “closed” format, as the only way of being inundated with requests for invitations. Even so, more than twenty people met to discuss these issues. In some senses, this workshop became something like an oracle. Many of the speakers’ positions have been reflected in the General Advocate of the European Court of Justice’s Opinion about the possibility of patenting human life in general and human embryonic stem cells in particular. It seems that in future altruistic research will take the place of research engaged in for commercial purposes. God save open source!

There are, however, some doubts which still remained in our minds. Will this approach be useful for the development of synthetic biology? Will the Patent Office’s really put it in practice? Will it create a world where Americans could make profit from European’s qualms about moral issues? How will we feed those poor patenting sharks if patenting will not be available in this field?  The weight of these concerns provoked in some of us the sensation that it might be necessary to keep on thinking about how to regulate synthetic biology. Please, do not get nervous! We will consider these questions in our next exciting workshop!

Knowledge Foundation

The Knowledge Foundation organised a workshop entitled “The Ethics of the Clinical Applications of Synthetic Biology”. The workshop was held at the University of Deusto on the 2nd and 3rd of November. It drew an interdisciplinary crowd of participants with backgrounds in philosophy, bioethics, theology and synthetic biology to present papers and discuss the ethical issues arising from the “state of the art” in synthetic bilogy. The workshop participants were asked to consider the following questions;

What are the most important clinical applications of Synbio?

What can we expect from Synbio in medicine in the future?

What are the ethical concerns of health-related Synbio?

The papers presented addressed these questions from different disciplinary perspectives, such as the theological aspects of synthetic biology and medicine, and as they might apply to different contexts, such as public health ethics. The participants widely agreed that continued assessment and discussion of the social and ethical implications of synthetic biology in terms of possible clinical applications is essential. It is important for policy makers and politicians to start considering these issues before any possible applications come to fruition. According to the workshop participants more cooperation between scientists and ethicists and policy makers is also desirable. Participants agreed that education of scientists on ethical challenges should be strengthened and be introduced at an early stage of university education. Ethics should not be confined to ethics evaluation and review, it should be an integral part of scientists thinking when working in laboratories even when no formal ethical or legal monitoring is required.


Brussels SYBHEL workshop

Rathenau Institute – Towards a European Policy for the Governance of Ethical and Legal Issues of Synthetic Biology for Human Health (A more comprehensive account of the workshop is available here SYBHEL Rathenau Webreport )

On April 14th and 15th of 2011 a group of some twenty five social and natural scientists, philosophers, European policy makers, regulators, SYBHEL project partners, policy analysts, and patient representatives met in Brussels to discuss the policy and governance implications related to health applications of synthetic biology (Synthetic biology) at the European level.

This workshop was structured around a discussion paper prepared by Conor Douglas and Dirk Stemerding of the Rathenau Instituut (The Hague), and was entitled ‘Towards a European Policy for the Governance of Ethical and Legal Issues of Synthetic Biology for Human Health’. The purpose of this discussion paper was to provide a platform for the invited experts to reflect on the ethical and legal issues raised by Synthetic biology in the context of European health policy making, and to provide some policy action-items that need to be considered in order to address any gaps between (prospective) Synthetic biology applications and tools for their governance.

The variety of workshop participants discussed a series of challenges raised by prospective synthetic biology health applications from their own disciplinary perspective and institutional setting. While the discussion paper outlined the tools for governance that are currently in place (i.e. laws and regulations; research ethics and funding; codes of conduct; and public debate) questions remained throughout the workshop about the extent to which they are sufficient to deal with ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) to European health.

For instance, it was unclear how synthetic biology application will be able to influence Europe health given the mixture of intellectual property arrangements including possible patent monopolies by the Venter Group, and the open-source repositories of molecular parts in the form of BioBricks Foundation.

Much discussion was also had at the workshop about the value of public engagements on synthetic biology as a form of governance, and what the outcome of such engagements should be. Are public engagements better suited for the governance of particular kinds of ELSI questions (i.e. about human enhancement or radical life extension) rather than others? If so, do such engagements need to be followed-up by concrete actions for them to operate as effective forms of governance? Questions were also asked about the whether or not it is worthwhile to have further public engagements on synthetic biology.

Going forward the Rathenau Instituut plans to pursue questions concerning policy issues related to the global development of synthetic biology, and exploring how synthetic biology can be steered towards addressing global health problems. Such questions might include the extent to which open-source options might best meet the global development of synthetic biology, or what role ‘garage’ or do-it-yourself (DIY) synthetic biology might play in addressing global health issues or the global development of this field?


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