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Who Owns Life? Ethical, Juridical, and Artistic Encounters with Biotechnology


This course is an Honours Class and therefore only available for students of an honours college

Enrolling in this course is possible until the 27th of January, using the link at ‘registration’ during this period.


This class is likely to ask you: If you could edit your DNA to improve your health or if you could create a green-fluorescent baby, what is to prevent you from doing so?”

100 years ago, “test tubes babies” were a fiction; today, IVF (in vitro fertilisation) is a commonplace: A resource-expensive, but, generally speaking, uncontested practice. 100 years from now, “designer babies” may be a market place reality; after all, parents are now able to pre-select against deficit embryos while three-person babies are a present scientific breakthrough. This class is likely to ask you: If you could edit your DNA to improve your health or if you could create a green-fluorescent baby, what is to prevent you from doing so?”

Genetic modification, tissue engineering, stem cell research, synthetic biology are biotechnological practices with a potential to radically transform our daily lives and subvert our conventional notions of nature, life and the human body. The possibilities and futures that such biotechnological developments enable cause great excitement as well as serious intellectual and practical concerns. Legal and philosophical debates in and around biotechnology are ongoing and animated, tackling issues of life ownership and life commodification. At the same time, legal, scientific, societal and economic forces fight over the regulation of research practice and of the commercial application of biotechnologies. The question remains: Who owns life, really?

The opportunities and possibilities of biotechnology challenge us to seek new approaches to the ethical, cultural, juridical, ethical and economic issues relating to biotechnological practices. This class is distinguished by a) a hands-on pedagogy and b) an emphasis on the cultural embedding of the issues at stake. During the class, scholars and experts in the field of life sciences will discuss the ethical, cultural, juridical and economic issues of life ownership and commodification. In addition, a bio‐artist will lead a series of hands-on, lab-based workshops for the students. These hands-on encounters will provide insights into how issues at stake play out in the everyday processes of the life sciences and how these issues are addressed in a cultural context through the interventions and reflections of artists and designers into these processes.


The aim of this class is to provide the participants with an hands-on understanding of the key issues in biotechnology and its products, and of the various perspectives and values in the public debate surrounding biotechnology. The participants will be working with challenging topics at the frontiers of ethics, science and art; what is more, they will be exposed to both a humanities and a natural science approach and will be invited to engage with experiential ways of learning. The participants will learn to think critically about exciting biotechnological challenges and how to approach these challenges in their own (professional) life.
10 meetings of 4 hours: 4 hands-on sessions in the lab, 4 sessions in which assigned texts are discussed with invited speakers, first session introduction and safety induction, last session student presentations.


Monday 8, 15, 22, 29 February, 7, 14, 21, 28 March, 4, 11 April; 13:00 – 17:00 hrs


Gorlaeus Lab, Einsteinweg 55, Leiden

Assessment method

Presentations and paper

Maximum number of students



Enrolling in this course is possible until 27 January via this link .


Prof. dr. R. Zwijnenberg