, Volume 3, Issue 1-4, pp 55-63,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 10 Oct 2009

Synthetic organisms and living machines


The difference between a non-living machine such as a vacuum cleaner and a living organism as a lion seems to be obvious. The two types of entities differ in their material consistence, their origin, their development and their purpose. This apparently clear-cut borderline has previously been challenged by fictitious ideas of “artificial organism” and “living machines” as well as by progress in technology and breeding. The emergence of novel technologies such as artificial life, nanobiotechnology and synthetic biology are definitely blurring the boundary between our understanding of living and non-living matter. This essay discusses where, at the borderline between living and non-living matter, we can position the future products of synthetic biology that belong to the two hybrid entities “synthetic organisms” and “living machines” and how the approaching realization of such hybrid entities affects our understanding of organisms and machines. For this purpose we focus on the description of three different types of synthetic biology products and the aims assigned to their realization: (1) synthetic minimal cells aimed at by protocell synthetic biology, (2) chassis organisms strived for by synthetic genomics and (3) genetically engineered machines produced by bioengineering. We argue that in the case of synthetic biology the purpose is more decisive for the categorization of a product as an organism or a machine than its origin and development. This has certain ethical implications because the definition of an entity as machine seems to allow bypassing the discussion about the assignment and evaluation of instrumental and intrinsic values, which can be raised in the case of organisms.