Synthetic Biology Creation Could Change Biofuels and the Environment

The creation of the synthetic organism “Synthia” has given new urgency to the debate on synthetic biology.


| May 25, 2010


In a paper published May 20 in the journal Science, the J. Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics Inc. announced the laboratory creation of the world's first self-reproducing organism whose entire genome was built from scratch by a machine. The construction of this synthetic organism, anticipated and dubbed “Synthia” by the ETC Group three years ago, will stir a firestorm of controversy over the ethics of building artificial life and the implications of the largely unknown field of synthetic biology.

Panacea, or...?

According to the May 20 publication, “Synthia” could be a boon to second-generation agrofuels making it theoretically possible to feed people and cars simultaneously. The article further suggests that “Synthia,” or synthetic biology, could help clean up the environment, save us from climate change, and address the food crisis. “Synthia is not a one-stop shop for all our societal woes,” disputes Pat Mooney, Executive Director of ETC Group, an international technology watchdog based in Canada. “It is much more likely to cause a whole new set of problems governments and society are ill-prepared to address.”

...Pandora’s Box?

“This is the quintessential Pandora’s box moment — like the splitting of the atom or the cloning of Dolly the sheep. We will all have to deal with the fall-out from this alarming experiment,” comments Jim Thomas of the ETC Group. “Synthetic biology is a high-risk profit-driven field, building organisms out of parts that are still poorly understood. We know that lab-created life-forms can escape, become biological weapons, and that their use threatens existing natural biodiversity. Most worrying of all, Craig Venter is handing this powerful technology to the world’s most irresponsible and environmentally damaging industry by partnering with the likes of BP and Exxon to hasten the commercialization of synthetic life forms.”

“Synthetic biology” refers to the construction of novel life forms using synthetic DNA made from off-the-shelf chemicals — a form of “extreme genetic engineering.” The team behind today’s announcement, led by controversial scientist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, is associated with a private company, Synthetic Genomics Inc., bankrolled by the US government and energy behemoths BP and Exxon. Synthetic Genomics recently announced a $600 million research and investment deal with Exxon Mobil in addition to a 2007 investment from BP for an undisclosed amount. Venter, who led the private sector part of the human genome project 10 years ago, has already applied for patents related to Synthia’s technology.

Although high-profile backers of synthetic biology now occupy key positions in the Obama administration, there still remains no proper national or international oversight of new high-risk, technologies that carry vast implications for humanity and the natural world. In 2006, ETC Group joined with other organizations to demand the formal, open and inclusive oversight of synthetic biology and have since called for a global halt on research pending the development of global regulations. ETC Group has reiterated that call at a scientific meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in Nairobi attended by more than 100 governments.

Pandemonium?

The lack of global rules governing the field also concerns many governments, illustrated by the biodiversity talks in Nairobi. Mundita Lim of the Philippines delegation to the CBD expressed her country’s concerns “about the serious potential impacts of synthetic biology on biodiversity ... We believe that there should be no field release of synthetic life, cell or genome into the environment until thorough scientific assessments have been conducted in a transparent, open and participatory process involving all Parties, indigenous and local communities that will all be potentially affected by these synthetic life forms with unknown consequences on biodiversity, the environment and livelihoods.”





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