Xenobiology: State-of-the-Art, Ethics, and Philosophy of New-to-Nature Organisms
The basic chemical constitution of all living organisms in the context of carbon-based chemistry consists of a limited number of small molecules and polymers. Until the twenty-first century, biology was mainly an analytical science and has now reached a point where it merges with engineering science, paving the way for synthetic biology. One of the objectives of synthetic biology is to try to change the chemical compositions of living cells, that is, to create an artificial biological diversity, which in turn fosters a new sub-field of synthetic biology, xenobiology. In particular, the genetic code in living systems is based on highly standardized chemistry composed of the same “letters” or nucleotides as informational polymers (DNA, RNA) and the 20 amino acids which serve as basic building blocks for proteins. The universality of the genetic code enables not only vertical gene transfer within the same species but also horizontal gene transfer across biological taxa, which require a high degree of standardization and interconnectivity. Although some minor alterations of the standard genetic code are found in nature (e.g., proteins containing non-conical amino acids exist in nature, and some organisms use alternated coding systems), all structurally deep chemistry changes within living systems are generally lethal, making the creation of artificial biological system an extremely difficult challenge.
In this context, one of the great challenges for bioscience is the development of a strategy for expanding the standard basic chemical repertoire of living cells. Attempts to alter the meaning of the genetic information stored in DNA as an informational polymer by changing the chemistry of the polymer (i.e., xeno-nucleic acids) or by changes in the genetic code have already yielded successful results. In the future this should enable the partial or full redirection of the biological information flow to generate “new” version(s) of the genetic code derived from the “old” biological world.
In addition to the scientific challenges, the attempt to increase biochemical diversity also raises important ethical and philosophical issues. Although promotors of this branch of synthetic biology highlight the many potential applications to come (e.g., novel tools for diagnostics and fighting infection diseases), such developments could also bring risks affecting social, political, and other structures of nearly all societies.
KeywordsEthics New-to-nature Non-canonical amino acids Philosophy Synthetic biology Xenobiology
The thoughts and ideas presented here are largely results of our interaction with Philippe Marlière, Sven Panke, Piet Herdewijn, Carlos-Acevedo Rocha, and Dirk Schulze-Makuch. Another very fortunate circumstance was that we worked together in EU-FP7 founded project METACODE (289572) whereby we could start to implement some of our conceptual ideas in the field of xenobiology. MS and NB also acknowledge support form EC FP7 project SYNPEPTIDE (613981) and MS acknowledges EC FP7 project SYNENERGENE (321488).
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