In May 2010 J. Craig Venter’s company Synthetic Genomics announced that it had made the world’s first organism with a completely synthetic genome. According to Venter, this organism was the first self-replicating species on the planet whose entire biological makeup was created by a computer.1 While the field of synthetic biology has been growing at a tremendous rate, few in the public or policy spheres had ever heard of synthetic biology or considered the field’s risks and benefits.
What is Synthetic Biology?
Synthetic biology is “the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems that do not exist in the natural world and also the redesigning of existing biological systems to perform specific tasks.”2 Instead of inserting genes from one species into another, what is considered more “traditional” genetic engineering, synthetic biology aims to create life from scratch with computer-synthesized DNA or without the use of DNA entirely.
Applications of Synthetic Biology
The first major commercial applications for synthetic biology will be to produce biofuels and medicines. Eventually, synthetic biologists hope to create any type of valuable industrial chemicals that would otherwise be produced by petrochemicals.
Synthetic biology is being used in two different processes for biofuels production – first is using synthetic enzymes to break down biomass into sugars for fuel, and second is creating microbes that produce fuel directly. Enzymes, which are proteins that catalyze reactions, are being engineered with synthetic DNA into microbes and tailored to break down certain types of biomass, such as woodchips or corn stalks. This would increase the rate at which biomass is broken down into sugars that can then be fermented into ethanol or other types of fuels. Synthetic biologists hope to change the organisms so that the oil they produce is chemically similar or identical to the oils that are currently used in today’s transportation and energy infrastructure.
These microbes would become “living chemical factories” that could be engineered to pump out almost any type of fuel or industrial chemical.
The other major application of synthetic biology that will likely see commercialization soon is the production of medicine. Already in production is arteminisic acid – a precursor to the important anti-malarial medicine arteminisin – which is being produced by E. coli with synthetic DNA. Proponents of synthetic biology claim that vaccines for influenza produced by synthetic organisms are close to commercialization.
Dangers of Synthetic Biology
Synthetic biology threatens the world’s biodiversity through the contamination of genomes that have evolved over billions of years with synthetic DNA. Once it has contaminated a species, this synthetic DNA cannot be recalled and will pass on indefinitely through generations. Some applications involve growing synthetic organisms in open ponds or intentionally releasing them into the envi-ronment. While other types of pollution can be cleaned up and do not breed, synthetic biological creations are designed to self-replicate and once released into the environment they would be impossible to stop.
The ways in which these organisms will interact with the natural environment is unpredictable, potentially devastating, and permanent. A synthetic organism designed for a specific task, such as eating up oil from oil spills in the ocean, could interact with naturally occurring organisms and adversely harm the environment. The synthetic organism could displace existing organisms or inter-fere with the existing ecosystem. Once it found an ecological niche in which to survive, it would be difficult if not impossible to eradicate.3
Synthetic biology is creating a new “bioeconomy” in which any and all types of biomass can become a feedstock to produce industrial products such as fuel, chemicals, medicines, and plastics. Theoretically any product made from petrochemicals can one day be made by syn-thetic microbes in a vat eating plant sugars. But who will decide what plant matter is turned into an industrial feed stock, who decides what land is used to grow food or bio-mass, and whose land will be used to grow these feedstocks for synthetic organisms? 4
Synthetic biology enthusiasts falsely assume there will be an endless supply of biomass and “marginal” land to fuel their biological revolution. These “marginal” lands are often the source of livelihood for small-scale farmers, pastoralists, women, and indigenous peoples. These “marginal” lands should be used to grow food for local communities, not fuel or industrial chemicals for wealthy nations. Synthetic organisms require an incredible amount of land, water, and fertilizer – all of which are already in short supply for food production. Increasing pressure on already strained land will only worsen issues of land grabbing, land ownership, biodiver-sity, and the health of the land and surrounding communities.
The poliovirus and the 1918 Spanish Influenza have already been recreated using mail-order DNA from a DNA synthesis company and were proven to be deadly in lab rats. A growing “Do-it-Yourself biology” movement that encourages the use of synthetic biology tools in people’s ga-rages increases the risk that dangerous pathogens may be intentionally or unintentionally created and released.
Regulation of Synthetic Biology
The risks synthetic biology pose to human health and the environment are serious since synthetic biology has the ability to create organisms that have never existed before and their complexity will only increase over time. We must establish a regulatory frame-work before this technology evolves too far and it is too late.
Friends of the Earth US is calling for a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms until there is ade-quate scientific analysis to justify such activities and until the impacts on the environment, biodiversity, human health, and all asso-ciated socio-economic repercussions, are examined. After then, appropriate regulations at the local, national, and international level must be established to ensure human health and the environment are not threatened before the moratorium should be lifted.
Synthetic biology’s Impact on Biological Diversity:
The release of synthetic microbes:
Synthetic organisms will threaten biological diversity if they escape into the environment. Intentional release is being proposed for bioremediation, such as cleaning up oil spills, and soil enhancement. These organisms are being specifically engineered to survive, function, and propagate in the natural environment. If they found an ecological niche, they could displace wild populations and disrupt entire ecosystems. Synthetic organisms could also escape unintentionally from laboratories, biorefineries, and production vats through faulty containment systems or human error. Many of these microbes are engineered to break down biomass or produce lipids for fuel and their escape could be disastrous. Escaped organisms tailored to break down cellulose or produce oils directly could lead to the destruction of all plant matter or the introduction of toxic compounds into the environment. Novel synthetic microbes could also have unexpected pathogenic qualities with negative consequences for both ecosystems and human health.
Synthetic biology – Opening the Door for “Digital Biopiracy.”
While the CBD has been discussing a Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing for many years, developments in synthetic biology allow would-be biopirates to steal genetic resources more efficiently. While “traditional” biopiracy involves the physical removal of material from a community to private hands, synthetic biology enables “digital biopiracy” where the DNA of an organism is se-quenced in situ, uploaded to the internet as information, and then transferred digitally to a DNA synthesizer to be copied and re-built elsewhere. This digital transfer of DNA sequences does not even require a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) since no physi-cal material is transferred. Yet, the technology allows corporations, govern-ments and individuals to freely take genetic material for private use in new synthetic organisms, which can then be patented as inventions. While syn-thetic biologists like to talk of writing new genetic code from scratch, in reality most synthetic DNA sequences developed for synthetic biology are near-copies of natural genetic code that has ‘evolved’ through computer models. The implications of this digital biopiracy are far reaching. For example, compa-nies and researchers are already developing organisms that will produce natu-ral compounds such as rubber and artemisinin in closed vats. These produc-tion facilities could undercut the livelihoods and rights of some of the poorest farmers and plantation workers in the world, by moving raw material produc-tion from the field to the fermentation vat, while gains will also move from communities to big commercial interests.
The increased demand on land, biomass, water and other natural resources:
Most commercial interest in synthetic biology is focused on developing microbes, such as yeast and E. coli, which can break down cellulose or other plant sugars into fuels, chemicals and plastics. First generation agrofuels have already led to massive changes in land use, impacting food and water supplies. So-called “next generation” fuels will only exacerbate this problem by transforming previously “low-value” forest and agricultural “wastes” such as straw, leaves and branches into valuable feedstocks and by growing biomass on “marginal” lands for energy and chemical companies. This is in itself a problem since these resources are not “wastes” but important components of soil’s recycling of nutrients and its capacity to sustain biodiversity and crops, absorbing CO2 and wa-ter. Additionally, “marginal” lands are often the source of livelihood for small-scale farmers, pastoralists, women, and indigenous peoples. Increased demand for biomass to produce biofuels through synthetic organisms will add even more pressure on soils, wa-ter resources and ecosystem integrity that are already stretched beyond breaking point. This demand will also compete with food security, the livelihood of communities, biodiversity, and conservation goals since there is simply not enough land or plant matter for all the uses that are being contemplated.
1 – Wade, Nicholas. “Researchers Say They Created a ‘Synthetic Cell.’” The New York Times. 20 May 2010. www.nytimes.com/2010/05/21/science/21cell.html
2 – Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology. ETC Group, 2007.
3 – Rodemeyer, Michael. New Life, Old Bottles: Regulating the First-Generation Products of Synthetic Biology. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Synthetic Biology Project, 2009.
4- Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology.