A new report by the ETC Group concludes that the social,
environmental and bio-weapons threats of synthetic biology surpass
the possible dangers and abuses of biotech. The full text of the 70-
page report, Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to
Synthetic Biology, is available for downloading free-of-charge on the
ETC Group website: www.etcgroup.org
"Genetic engineering is passe," said Pat Mooney, Executive Director
of ETC Group. "Today, scientists aren't just mapping genomes and
manipulating genes, they're building life from scratch - and they're
doing it in the absence of societal debate and regulatory oversight,"
Synbio - dubbed "genetic engineering on steroids" - is inspired by
the convergence of nano-scale biology, computing and engineering.
Using a laptop computer, published gene sequence information and mail-
order synthetic DNA, just about anyone has the potential to construct
genes or entire genomes from scratch (including those of lethal
pathogens). Scientists predict that within 2-5 years it will be
possible to synthesise any virus; the first de novo bacterium will
likely make its debut in 2007; in 5-10 years simple bacterial genomes
will be synthesised routinely and it will become no big deal to
cobble together a designer genome, insert it into an empty bacterial
cell and - voila - give birth to a living, self-replicating organism.
Other synthetic biologists hope to reconfigure the genetic pathways
of existing organisms to perform new functions - such as
manufacturing high-value drugs or chemicals.
A clutch of entrepreneurial scientists, including the gene maverick
J. Craig Venter, is setting up synthetic biology companies backed by
government funding and venture capital. They aim to commercialise new
biological parts, devices and systems that don't exist in the natural
world - some of which are designed for environmental release.
Advocates insist that synthetic biology is the key to cheap biofuels,
a cure for malaria, and climate change remediation - media-friendly
goals that aim to mollify public concerns about a dangerous and
controversial technology. Ultimately synthetic biology means cheaper
and widely accessible tools to build bioweapons, virulent pathogens
and artificial organisms that could pose grave threats to people and
the planet. The danger is not just bio-terror, but "bio-error," warns
Despite calls for open source biology, corporate and academic
scientists are winning exclusive monopoly patents on the products and
processes of synthetic genetics. Like biotech, the power to make
synthetic life could be concentrated in the hands of major
multinational firms. As gene synthesis becomes cheaper and faster, it
will become easier to synthesise a microbe than to find it in nature
or retrieve it from a gene bank. Biological samples, sequenced and
stored in digital form, will move instantaneously across the globe
and be resurrected in corporate labs thousands of miles away - a
practice that could erode future support for genetic conservation and
create new challenges for international negotiations on biodiversity.
"Last year, 38 civil society organizations rejected proposals for
self-regulation of synthetic biology put forth by a small group of
synthetic biologists," said Kathy Jo Wetter of ETC Group. "Widespread
debate on the social, economic and ethical implications of synbio
must come first - and it must not be limited to biosecurity and
biosafety issues," said Wetter.
The tools for synthesising genes and genomes are widely accessible
and advancing at break-neck pace. ETC Group's new report concludes
that it is not enough to regulate synthetic biology on the national
level. Decisions must be considered in a global context, with broad
participation from civil society and social movements. In keeping
with the Precautionary Principle, ETC Group asserts that - at a
minimum - there must be an immediate ban on environmental release of
de novo synthetic organisms until wide societal debate and strong
governance are in place.