Search Results : Search » SynBioWatch

Oct 262012
 
Cross-posted from Thomsen/Reuters, by Roberta Rampton and Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON | Wed Oct 24, 2012 6:48pm EDT

(Reuters) – Biofuels made from algae, promoted by President Barack Obama as a possible way to help wean Americans off foreign oil, cannot be made now on a large scale without using unsustainable amounts of energy, water and fertilizer, the U.S. National Research Council reported on Wednesday.

“Faced with today’s technology, to scale up any more is going to put really big demands on … not only energy input, but water, land and the nutrients you need, like carbon dioxide, nitrate and phosphate,” said Jennie Hunter-Cevera, a microbial physiologist who headed the committee that wrote the report.

Hunter-Cevera stressed that this is not a definitive rejection of algal biofuels, but a recognition that they may not be ready to supply even 5 percent, or approximately 10.3 billion gallons (39 billion liters), of U.S. transportation fuel needs.

“Algal biofuels is still a teenager that needs to be developed and nurtured,” she said by telephone.

The National Research Council is part of the National Academies, a group of private nonprofit institutions that advise government on science, technology and health policy.

Its sustainability assessment was requested by the Department of Energy, which has invested heavily in projects to develop the alternative fuel.

In 2009, the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture awarded San Diego-based Sapphire Energy Inc more than $100 million in grants and loan guarantees to help build a plant in New Mexico that will produce commercial quantities of algal biofuel. Two other companies received smaller amounts of federal assistance.

In February, as gasoline prices spiraled, Obama said algal biofuels had the potential to cut U.S. foreign oil dependence. He estimated that U.S. oil imports used for transportation could be cut substantially.

The National Research Council report shows that the government should continue research on algal biofuel as well as other technologies that reduce oil use, an Energy Department spokeswoman said.

“Today’s report outlines the need for continued research and development to make algal biofuel sustainable and cost-competitive, but it also highlights the long-term potential of this technology and why it is worth pursuing,” Jen Stutsman said in a statement.

The council’s report noted that future innovations, and increased production efficiencies, could enhance the viability of algal biofuels.

GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS

It said a main reason to use alternative fuels for transportation is to cut climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions created by burning fossil fuel. But estimates of greenhouse emissions from algal biofuels cover a wide range, with some suggesting that over their life cycle, the fuels release more climate-warming gas than petroleum, it said.

The product now made in small quantities by Sapphire uses algae, sunlight and carbon dioxide as feedstocks to make fuel that is not dependent on food crops or farmland. The company calls it “green crude.”

Tim Zenk, a Sapphire vice president, said the company has worked for five years on the sustainability issues examined in the report. “The NRC has acknowledged something that the industry has known about in its infancy and began to address immediately,” he said.

He said Sapphire recycles water and uses land that is not suitable for agriculture at its NewMexico site, where it hopes to make 100 barrels of algal biofuel a day by 2014.

The U.S. Navy used algal biofuel along with fuel made from cooking oil waste as part of its “Green Fleet” military exercises demonstration this summer, drawing fire from Republican lawmakers for its nearly $27 per gallon cost.

The council study also said it was unclear whether producing that much biofuel from algae would actually lead to reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

The report shows the strategy is too risky, said Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.

“Algae production poses a double-edged threat to our water resources, already strained by the drought,” Michal Rosenoer, a biofuels campaigner with the group, said in a statement.

Industry group Algal Biomass Organization focused on the positives in its statement.

“We hope that policymakers and others involved in the future of the domestic fuel industry will recognize the NRC’s conclusion that sustainability concerns are not a definitive barrier to future growth.”

(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Christopher Wilson)

Aug 062012
 

From Science Magazine

Germany’s National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina has come down firmly against the use of crops for energy. In a reportissued today from a panel of more than 20 experts who have been working together since 2010, the academy concludes that biofuels should play only a small part in the move toward sustainable sources of energy. Biofuels use more land area, generate more greenhouse gas emissions, and have a greater impact on the environment than other alternative energy sources such as photovoltaic solar energy, solar thermal energy, or wind power. Biofuel crops may also find themselves competing with food crops for valuable land.

Mar 292012
 

By David Perlman

Thursday, March 29, 2012 — A plan by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory to merge its energy labs into a major new research facility in Richmond where scientists would work to develop biofuels through genetic engineering came under fire Wednesday by activists who fear that dangerous new microbes would be created there.

And even if the venture succeeds in transforming plants into biofuels by altering the genes of microbes, the activists argued, the Richmond lab could become an unregulated front for corporate interests and turn millions of acres of croplands used to grow food in underdeveloped countries into huge plantations for energy production.

Their protests reflect deep concerns about the dramatic new science called “synthetic biology,” an unfamiliar term that in part involves engineering the genes of microbes to transform worthless plants like switchgrass into potentially unlimited sources of energy. The controversy also recalls an epic time in science nearly 40 years ago when manipulating genes was in its infancy and the public was deeply fearful that some genetically altered “Andromeda Strain” microbe might escape and imperil the world with unknown diseases.

That fear was largely ended when, after a 1975 conference at Asilomar near Monterey, biologists, lawyers and physicians agreed on enforceable guidelines for proceeding with genetic engineering projects.

It marked the first time that scientists agreed to be regulated and led to the public start of recombinant DNA research and what would become the huge international biotech industry.

New concerns

Concerns about engineering “synthetic biology” are arising anew among activists.

On Wednesday, they gathered at the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley to express their concerns that the new research lab would be a poorly regulated entity with ties to unknown energy companies, that the work there would expose employees to dangerous microbes and, if successful, ultimately rob undeveloped nations of their croplands.

“This is a wild, wild, dangerous world,” said Becky McClain, a onetime molecular biologist at a Pfizer lab in Connecticut who claimed that she had been sickened by a genetically engineered virus and was fired for speaking out about it.

“We can’t afford to leave it to the corporations to self-regulate,” said McClain, who won a $1.37 million lawsuit against Pfizer as a whistle-blower.

Gopal Dayaneni, an Oakland organizer, argued that the entire project – with so many engineered microbes – should never be built where earthquake hazards are high.

“The grand promise of getting off fossil fuels to create biofuels is a big pipe dream,” he said. “It’s bubble economics.”

Jim Thomas, a former science researcher for Greenpeace International, called the Richmond project an example of “extreme genetic engineering” for the benefit of what he termed a $1.6 billion energy industry that is already represented by at least 20 Bay Area companies.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is financed by the U.S. Department of Energy, as are the labs and facilities that are being merged into the new Richmond research center.

Protests called baseless

A leader in creating the Richmond venture on Wednesday called the protests baseless.

The engineered microbes to be used in the quest for new biofuels “are the very same microbes that have been used by the biotech industry for the past 40 years,” said Jay D. Keesling, a pioneer in the synthetic biology effort and the founding director of the Berkeley lab’s original synthetic biology department.

They are safe, he insisted, but where they were originally created by biologists, they will now be made even safer by the thoroughness of engineers.

“The whole point of synthetic biology is to make every step in the process more predictable and more reliable, and we’re very aware of the safety concerns and aware too of the social problems involved,” he said.

Using wastelands

Nor would food croplands be sacrificed for new biofuels, Keesling said. The countless acres needed would be wastelands where only otherwise useless plants like switchgrasses would be grown for biofuel, he said. “There’s really no market for that kind of land,” he said.

As to the charge that the new Richmond research center will be dominated by corporate interests, Keesling insisted it will remain completely independent of the energy industry.

“That’s not to say that we won’t interact with industry,” he said.

The Richmond project will have an annual budget of between $200 million and $250 million, Keesling said – 95 percent of it from the U.S. Department of Energy, and a smaller amount from the National Institutes of Health.

It will combine the work of several Bay Area biofuel laboratories: the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek; the Joint Bioenergy Institute in Emeryville, where Keesling is now the chief executive officer; and the Life Science Division of the Berkeley Lab.

David Perlman is a San Francisco Chronicle science editor. dperlman@sfchronicle.com

This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/03/28/BAEC1NRIJ6.DTL#ixzz1qWSiKHBP

Mar 272012
 

From the San Jose Mercury-News

By Emily Smith Beitiks

Special to the Mercury News

Posted:   03/27/2012 01:01:26 PM PDT

Updated:   03/27/2012 02:39:14 PM PDT
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently announced a proposal to build a facility in Richmond at which synthetic biology research will be a major focus. This news should give us pause to consider exactly what risks this little-known field poses for the environment and human health.

Last year, molecular biologist Becky McClain was awarded $1.37 million in a whistle-blower suit against the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer after she was fired for raising safety concerns about the lab where she worked. McClain was infected with a genetically engineered virus being researched in her lab. She continues to experience intermittent paralysis and spinal pain, symptoms consistent with the effects of the pathogen.

McClain’s story offers an important lesson for assessing a new kind of bioengineering: the rapidly growing field of synthetic biology, which has already been called genetic engineering on steroids.

Synthetic biologists build artificial organisms using the building blocks of life. While techniques vary, the intent is the same: to create life from scratch. Proponents promise extraordinary benefits, from curing diseases to replacing fossil fuels. But the unknowns are as serious as they are numerous.

Producing a synthetic organism could have unforeseeable and serious effects on the environment. In May 2006, 38 environmental and social justice organizations wrote an open letter to synthetic biology researchers, asking that governmental safeguards be put in place and studies be conducted to assess the risks posed by synthetic life-forms. Six years later, experiments continue without adequate data to assess risk.

Lab workers and nearby communities would be the first exposed to any artificial life forms that escape from synthetic biology facilities. That the new Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will bring synthetic biology research to Richmond is especially troubling, given the history of toxic exposures in this poor, predominantly of-color community. Yes, the Richmond lab may create jobs, but will they be safe jobs?

Given the pace of synthetic biology’s expansion, especially in California, the slow pace of federal monitoring is unacceptable. In 2010, the Presidential Commission for the Study on Bioethical Issues produced recommendations for governance of synthetic biology. Two years later, of the commission’s 18 recommendations, seven had “no federal activity,” and not one has been completely fulfilled.

UC Berkeley anthropologist Paul Rabinow provided a glimpse inside a lab after he evaluated SynBERC, a Berkeley-based synthetic biology lab. According to the New York Times, Rabinow found the scientists to be “profoundly irresponsible” and indifferent toward their “responsibility to larger society” to ensure public safety above all else.

Supporters of synthetic biology say that the organisms they create are too fragile to have serious environmental health consequences. Perhaps their confidence is warranted. But doesn’t it make sense to put safeguards in place?

Most synthetic biologists argue that we should trust scientists to regulate themselves. But many of them have received corporate funding. Synthetic biology pioneer Craig Venter’s company, for example, has a $600 million dollar deal with Exxon. Will corporate profits come before public safety?

As plans for the Richmond lab proceed, we must demand that synthetic biologists revisit the basic lesson from high school chemistry class: safety first.

Safety for communities, workers, and the environment will be the focus of a forum in Berkeley on March 29 where these issues will be discussed. Called Unmasking the Bay Area Bio Lab and Synthetic Biology, this will be the first open forum on synthetic biology brought together not with an industry-driven agenda, but in the public interest. To learn more, go towww.synbiowatch.org.

Emily Smith Beitiks is the senior program associate with the Center for Genetics and Society, a Berkeley-based social justice non-profit. She wrote this for this newspaper.

 

Dec 202016
 

UN Biodiversity Convention grapples with threats posed by extreme biotech industry

CANCUN, MEXICO — This week, 196 countries meeting at the 2016 UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) Conference of the Parties made progress on the global governance and oversight of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology (syn bio) has become one of the most fiercely debated topics at the Biodiversity Convention, almost 7 years after civil society first brought the need for precaution and regulation of the new set of biotechnologies to this UN body.

During the 13th Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the CBD, countries agreed to investigate how digital genetic sequences may be used to commit biopiracy and warned against a risky new genetic extinction technology called gene drives. They also agreed on a working definition of synthetic biology (2) and to support an ongoing expert group to move forward international discussions on the topic. However, this progress was undermined by a significant ‘move backwards’ in safety oversight and risk assessment when a key standing expert group expected to issue risk assessment guidelines for synthetic biology was dissolved.

“Syn bio was among the hottest topics on the negotiating table,” explains Jim Thomas of ETC Group, who sits on the CBD’s expert group on Synthetic Biology. “Governments now get it: they need to urgently grapple with how synthetic biology and other fast moving, risky technologies are threatening biodiversity, local economies and the rights of farmers and Indigenous Peoples.”

Parties took a big step forward in addressing the controversial issue of digital biopiracy, a fast-emerging loophole in the Biodiversity Convention through which companies and others can access gene sequences of plants and seeds on the internet and then use them, including by re-creating physical DNA via synthetic biology techniques, without the agreement of (or any benefit to) biodiverse countries or communities from whom the genes originated.  While some rich countries with large biotech industries (e.g. Canada) tried to take the topic of digital biopiracy off the table, eventually all agreed the topic needed further examination at future meetings.

“We are pleased that there is a specific and agreed plan to address piracy of gene sequences over the next two years,” said Edward Hammond of Third World Network who is another member of the CBD expert group on syn bio. “Wealthy countries can no longer plead that they are unprepared to discuss this loophole. Fast-moving technology demands an equally fast decision, and there can be no more pretending that understandings of genetic resources based on the biotechnology of the 1990s suffice to regulate the field today.”

Civil society at the CBD also urged governments to apply strong precaution on gene drives, a new gene-editing technology that enables species-wide genetic engineering by aggressively spreading genetic changes through the wild. The issue was brought to the negotiating table after more than 170 civil society organizations called on governments at the Biodiversity Convention to place a moratorium on the development and release of gene drives because of their potential for unpredictable, and possibly uncontrollable, impacts on biodiversity, wildlife and ecosystems.

Many governments were very alarmed about this new technology. Countries agreed to approach gene drives with precaution and to establish risk assessment and regulation (4), even though Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Brazil, countries with close ties to the biotech industry, bluntly opposed even mentioning the issue. A global meeting of governments and civil society at IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) in September 2016 had already adopted highly precautionary language on gene drives.

“The explicit mention of gene drives in the decision is an alert to all governments that they need to pay close attention to this new high-risk technology that is intentionally designed to aggressively spread into wild species and the environment, with potential serious transboundary effects,” added Silvia Ribeiro from ETC Group.

“Gene drives are a false solution to the real problem of biodiversity loss,” said Dana Perls, with Friends of the Earth International. “We should not release dangerous gene drives into our environment without robust systems to evaluate the risks and without an international governance mechanism in place. We want to see real, sustainable, community-based conservation efforts, not a live testing-zone that could allow new destructive agricultural practices or cause permanent damage to ecosystems.”

Unfortunately, the positive decisions addressing definitions, future work, digital sequences and gene drives were accompanied by a slide backwards following a decision on risk assessment of genetically modified organisms under the CBD’s Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

“Given the rapid advances in technological developments, it is crucial to understand the risks that each of these holds for the environment or human health,” said Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, representing the Federation of German Scientists. “Guidance on risk assessment is very much needed, yet parties failed their duty. They not only blocked the development of new risk assessment guidance for synthetic biology, gene drives or genetically modified fish, but they also closed down the expert group that could have developed such guidance in the future.”

The next Conference of the Parties will convene in 2018 in Egypt, and the expert group on synthetic biology will meet again before that.

###

Expert contacts:

Jim Thomas, + 1 (514) 516-5759, jim@etcgroup.org

Dana Perls, +1(925) 705-1074, dperls@foe.org

Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, r.steinbrecher@gn.apc.org

Ed Hammond, eh@pricklyresearch.com

Silvia Ribeiro: +52 1 55 2653 3330, silvia@etcgroup.org

Communications contacts: Trudi Zundel, +1 (226) 979-0993, trudi@etcgroup.org; Marie-Pia Rieublanc, +52 (1) 967-140-4432, territorios@otrosmundoschiapas.org

More information on synthetic biology and gene drives at:

http://www.synbiowatch.org/

http://www.foei.org/news/greater-regulation-needed-synthetic-biology-cop-13

http://www.etcgroup.org/

Notes to editors:

1.     The full text of the decisions on Synthetic Biology and Digital Sequence Information on Genetic resources from CBD COP 13 are available at https://www.cbd.int/conferences/2016/cop-13/documents. The relevant decisions are:

UNEP/CBD/COP/13/L34

UNEP/CBD/COP/13/L29

UNEP/CBD/NP/COP-MOP/2/L11 (available at https://www.cbd.int/conferences/2016/np-mop-2/documents)

2.     Synthetic biology is an emerging biotechnology industry expected to reach almost $40 billion by 2020. The definition of Synthetic Biology now agreed under the Biodiversity Convention is: “Synthetic biology is a further development and new dimension of modern biotechnology that combines science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the understanding, design, redesign, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems.”

3.     Civil society has been calling on countries to assess synthetic biology in light of possible impacts on people, communities and the environment for over a decade and first raised the topic of synthetic biology at the CBD in 2010.The topic was taken up as a new and emerging issue under the CBD following submissions of information by the International Civil Society Working Group on Synthetic Biology – a network of international organizations that currently includes Friends of the Earth, ETC Group, Third World Network, Heinrich Boell Foundation, Ecoropa,  Econexus and the Federation of German Scientists.

4.     The text of the decision on gene drives:

2. Reiterates paragraph 3 of decision XII/24 and notes that it can also apply to some living modified organisms containing gene drives;

Paragraph 3 of decision XII/24:

3. Urges Parties and invites other Governments to take a precautionary approach, in accordance with paragraph 4 of decision XI/11 and:

(a) To establish, or have in place, effective risk assessment and management procedures and/or regulatory systems to regulate environmental release of any organisms, components or products resulting from synthetic biology techniques, consistent with Article 3 of the Convention;

(b) To approve organisms resulting from synthetic biology techniques for field trials only after appropriate risk assessments have been carried out in accordance with national, regional and/or international frameworks, as appropriate;

(c) To carry out scientific assessments concerning organisms, components and products resulting from synthetic biology techniques with regard to potential effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, taking into account risks to human health and addressing, as appropriate, and according to national and/or regional legislation, other issues such as food security and socioeconomic considerations with, where appropriate, the full participation of indigenous and local communities;

(d) To encourage the provision of funding for research into synthetic biology risk assessment methodologies and into the positive and negative impacts of synthetic biology on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and to promote interdisciplinary research that includes related socioeconomic considerations;

(e)To cooperate in the development and/or strengthening of human resources and institutional capacities, including on methodologies for risk assessments in synthetic biology and its potential impacts on biodiversity, in developing countries, in particular the least developed countries and small island developing States, and countries with economies in transition, including through existing global, regional and national institutions and organizations and, as appropriate, by facilitating civil society involvement. The needs of developing country Parties, in particular the least developed countries and small island developing States among them, and Parties with economies in transition, for financial resources; access to and transfer of technology consistent with Article 16 of the Convention; establishing or strengthening regulatory frameworks; and the management of risks related to the release of organisms, components and products resulting from synthetic biology techniques, should be taken fully into account in this regard;

Dec 082016
 

mosquitoby Friends of the Earth US

Citizens/environment will not be impacted by novel experiment releasing millions of GE mosquitoes

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Food and Drug Administration announced that it will not move forward with the controversial release of millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes in the community of Key Haven in Monroe County, Florida. The release of the GE mosquitoes would have been the first-ever in the United States, but the FDA failed to conduct adequate testing for potential impacts to people, threatened and endangered species, and the environment. During the November 2016 election, local citizens voted against the release of the insects.

A coalition of public interest groups – including Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, Foundation Earth, the International Center for Technology Assessment, the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, and Food & Water Watch – yesterday received a response to their 60-day notice of intent to sue the FDA under the Endangered Species Act for failing to take into account impacts to federally listed species in a fast-tracked approval of the release of the GE mosquitoes.

In a letter to CFS attorneys, counsel from the FDA noted, “per the public referendums which took place on November 8, 2016, and the subsequent board meeting of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) on November 19, 2016, the proposed field trial is no longer moving forward in Key Haven, FL. Because residents of Key Haven voted against the trial, FKMCD commissioners agreed that the trial will not be conducted there.”

Release of GE mosquitoes elsewhere in Monroe Country will require the manufacturers, Oxitec, to resubmit a new application for a trial release with environmental data for the new site. If the FDA considers alternate locations proposed by Oxitec for a trial release, it will need to conduct the mandatory Environmental Assessment and indicate Findings of No Significant Impact for any new site.

“FDA knew it was reckless to approve the release of a novel species without first assessing the potential impacts. The agency didn’t do its homework so the local community spoke up and they had the law on their side,” said Jaydee Hanson, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Food Safety.

“This is a victory that protects local communities from reckless experiments,” said Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner with Friends of the Earth U.S. “The FDA should never let people and ecosystems be treated as laboratories. We need long-term and sustainable solutions to prevent mosquito breeding grounds.”

“We are glad the FDA finally recognized that it should not allow a company to release experimental GE mosquitoes into a community without their consent,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch. “The FDA needs an entirely new approach to evaluating the potential risks form GE insects.”

“We expect Oxitec will reapply for a permit to include all of Monroe County. FDA must push Oxitec to answer questions the company has avoided, like why have the mosquitos not been tested for pre-existing disease, especially when Zika transfers to eggs; and what is the likelihood of antibiotic-resistant bacteria promotion. Finally, FDA must require a full Environmental Impact Statement on the long term effects of the GE Mosquito DNA entering the sustainable wild populations,” said Barry Wray, Executive Director, Florida Keys Environmental Coalition.

Background:

On November 9, residents of Key Haven, Florida, the proposed release site of the GE mosquitoes, voted against the release of the insects, which were not adequately assessed for risk before being approved by the FDA.

The lack of independent scientific research on the release of GE mosquitoes constitutes a most troubling factor in the drive to release millions of these insects. While the desire to control viral diseases like zika and dengue is understandable, Oxitec, the company manufacturing the GE mosquitoes, has not demonstrated that its release of the mosquitoes in Brazil, Cayman Islands and Malaysia has reduced disease. Few studies, if any, have been done to understand the unintended evolutionary effects of introducing new genes into a species. GE mosquitoes are intended to be sterile, but not all are.

In addition to potential threats to sensitive ecosystems and a lack of evidence to support the GE mosquitoes’ efficacy at minimizing the spread of disease, there is little information about what ingesting these insects could do to people. So many mosquitoes are released in the Oxitec trials (millions are released multiple times a week) that people complain of being forced to breathe in and eat mosquitoes.

Center for Food Safety’s mission is to empower people, support farmers, and protect the earth from the harmful impacts of industrial agriculture. Through groundbreaking legal, scientific, and grassroots action, we protect and promote your right to safe food and the environment. Please join our more than 750,000 consumer and farmer advocates across the country at www.centerforfoodsafety.org. Twitter: @CFSTrueFood, @CFS_Press

Friends of the Earth fights to create a more healthy and just world. Our current campaigns focus on promoting clean energy and solutions to climate change, ensuring the food we eat and products we use are safe and sustainable, and protecting marine ecosystems and the people who live and work near them.

Food & Water Watch champions healthy food and clean water for all. We stand up to corporations that put profits before people, and advocate for a democracy that improves people’s lives and protects our environment.

The Mission of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition is to coordinate and support organizations, businesses and individuals, who work to protect the coral reefs and ecosystems of the Florida Keys and to provide a unified voice for our community.within our island environment, do everything we can to protect it.

###

Contacts:
Courtney Sexton; (202) 547-9359, pr@centerforfoodsafety.org
Kate Colwell, (202) 222-0744, kcolwell@foe.org

Dec 052016
 
Webridge (revised from) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Webridge (revised from) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

CANCUN, MEXICO – This week, international conservation and environmental leaders are calling on governments at the 2016 UN Convention on Biodiversity to establish a moratorium on the controversial genetic extinction technology called gene drives.

More resources on gene drives and campaigns at CBD COP13

Gene drives, developed through new gene-editing techniques- are designed to force a particular genetically engineered trait to spread through an entire wild population – potentially changing entire species or even causing deliberate extinctions. The statement urges governments to put in place an urgent, global moratorium on the development and release of the new technology, which poses serious and potentially irreversible threats to biodiversity, as well as national sovereignty, peace and food security.

Over 160 civil society organisations from six continents have joined the call. Among them were environmental organizations including Friends of the Earth International; International Union of Food Workers representing over 10 million workers in 127 countries ; organizations representing millions of small-scale famers around the world, such as the La Via Campesina International and the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements; the international indigenous peoples’ organization Tebtebba; scientist coalitions including European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility and Unión de Científicos Comprometidos con la Sociedad (Mexico); as well as ETC Group and Third World Network.

“We lack the knowledge and understanding to release gene drives into the environment – we don’t even know what questions to ask. To deliberately drive a species to extinction has major ethical, social and environmental implications,” says Dr. Steinbrecher, representing the Federation of German Scientists. “It is essential that we pause, to allow the scientific community, local communities and society at large to debate and reflect. We can’t allow ourselves to be led by a novel technique. In the meantime, a moratorium is essential.”

“These genetic extinction technologies are false solutions to our conservation challenges,” said Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth. “We want to support truly sustainable and community driven conservation efforts. Gene drives could be co-opted by agribusiness and military interests. We need a moratorium on irreversible and irresponsible technologies such as gene drives.”

“Gene drives will be one of the fiercest debates at CBD this year,” says Jim Thomas of ETC Group. “Gene drives are advancing far too quickly in the real world, and so far are unregulated. There are already hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into gene drive development, and even reckless proposals to release gene drives within next four years.”

“The CBD is the premier international treaty for protecting biodiversity and life on earth from new threats,” said Lim Li Ching of Third World Network. “It is within the mandate of the CBD to adopt this moratorium, and countries that are party to this agreement must act now to avoid serious or irreversible harm.”

A press conference on the Call for a Moratorium will be held on December 5, 2016 at 3pm EST in the Press Conference Room. It can be live-streamed at http://flux.live/cop/coplive/pr.html.

###

Expert contacts:

English: Jim Thomas, (514) 516-5759, jim@etcgroup.org; Dana Perls, +1 (925) 705-1074, dperls@foe.org; Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, +44 (776) 973-3594, r.steinbrecher@econexus.info

Spanish: Silvia Ribeiro, +52 55 2653 3330, silvia@etcgroup.org; Veronica Villa, +52 1 55 5432 4679, veronica@etcgroup.org.

Communications contacts: Trudi Zundel, (226) 979-0993, trudi@etcgroup.org; Marie-Pia Rieublanc (se habla español), +52 1 967 140 4432, territorios@otrosmundoschiapas.org.

Note to Editors:

  1. A copy of the Call for a Global Moratorium on Gene Drives is available with a complete list of signatories, and a short briefing outlining the arguments for a global moratorium on gene drives prepared by the Civil Society Working Group on Gene Drives is available at http://www.synbiowatch.org/gene-drives/gene-drives-moratorium
  2. The organizers of the letter are still inviting organizations to join as signatories. Additional organizational signatures can be sent to: trudi@etcgroup.org
  3. The UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) is meeting from December 4-17 in Cancun, Mexico. Other synthetic biology topics are being negotiated – more background found in this media advisory: http://www.foe.org/news/news-releases/2016-12-genetic-extinction-tech-and-digital- dna-challenged
  4. In the lead up to COP 13, German Minister for the Environment Barbara Hendricks wrote a statement saying she would not support the release of gene drives into the environment. https://www.testbiotech.org/en/node/1772
  5. In September 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) adopted a de facto moratorium on the support or endorsement of research into gene drives for conservation or other purposes. At the same time, 30 leading conservationists and environmentalists called for a moratorium. More information on this moratorium is available at http://www.foe.org/news/news-releases/2016-08-genetic-extinction-technology-rejected-by- international-group-of-scientists.
  6. In June 2016, the US National Academy of Sciences released “Gene Drives on the Horizon,” a report that explored the environmental and social concerns of gene drives, and warned against the environmental release of gene drives. More information on the report can be found at http://nas-sites.org/gene-drives/
Nov 302016
 

gene-drives-image

“Genetic engineering is passé. 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.”
– Pat Mooney, Executive Director of ETC Group, whose mission is to access the consequences and impacts of new technologies.

Listen to the podcast here: https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/postcarbon/episodes/2016-11-28T15_39_01-08_00

KWMR Post Carbon Radio:

Our two guests are: Claire Hope Cummings, author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds. Her concerns are how gene drives are proposed for use in conservation (Island Conservation’s daughterless mouse) and the whole idea of the eradication of the female (daughterless anything) and anything people need to know about the regulatory issues – most notably that there is no regulatory response to these new developments and the response to GMOs was terribly inadequate and facilitated widespread contamination, among other risks which are still a problem.

Jim Thomas is a Research Programme Manager and Writer at ETC Group, located in Ottawa, Canada. His background is in communications, writing on emerging technologies and international campaigning. For the seven years previous to joining ETC Group Jim was a researcher and campaigner on Genetic Engineering and food issues for Greenpeace International – working in Europe, North America, Australia/New Zealand and South East Asia. He has extensive experience on issues around transgenic crops and nanotechnologies has written articles, chapters and technical reports in the media and online.

Nov 212016
 

vat-768x432by Mary Lou McDonald (Safe Food Matters)

New words like “synthetic biology”, “GMOs 2.0”, “CRISPR”, and “new biology” are being heard.  And new compounds are in our fragrances, flavourings, cosmetics and foods.

The new words are for new techniques of genetic engineering. What are the techniques and their products, and should we be concerned?

New Techniques­

The old techniques of genetic engineering (GMOs 1.0) dealt with organisms, and inserted genes by either blasting them into an organism or transferring them via a virus. This was not very precise.

1. Gene Editing. A new technique is called “gene editing”. It is more on target. It can cut the genetic code of organisms with greater precision, insert new code, remove a code and swap out genes with others. Tools used in gene editing include “CRISPR-Cas9”, “Zinc Finger Nucleus” and “TALEN”.

2. Synthetic Biology. Another new technique is the creation of genetic code from scratch, without involving living organisms. This is called “synthetic biology” or “put together life”. It uses computer design technology to engineer and produce new codes in the lab.

Applications and Technologies

These techniques, when applied, have resulted in far-reaching technologies.

a) Applications of Gene Editing

Gene Drives.  A much talked-about technology is “gene drives”.  It drives the particular gene down to the offspring and doesn’t allow space for an alternate to arise, as would occur in natural evolution. Once a trait is forced down at the expense of the alternatives, the extinction of the “alternate” offspring is the ultimate result.

Gene drives have so far been used on yeast, fruit flies and 2 mosquito species, but have not yet been released to ecosystems. There is widespread discussion about using them to eradicate mice on islands, mosquitoes, and pests.

GMOs 2.0.  Gene editing is also used in agriculture, the old domain of GMOs 1.0. With GMOs 2.0, food is being engineered to insert, delete or replace DNA, and entirely new sequences are being created. Gene edited mushrooms (deletions in a gene for non-browning) and canola oil (a gene removed to tolerate herbicide) have both been commercialized. Monsanto in September, 2016 licensed the use of CRISPR to engineer food and Dupont in October 2015 predicted that CRISPR plants would be on dinner plates within 5 years. Proponents of gene editing argue that the resulting organisms are not “GM” or “novel substances”, and therefore aren’t subject to current regulation.

b) Applications of SynBio

Foods, Flavours, Fragrances. The synbio technique has spawned many new applications, including the creation of new compounds in consumer products that are so similar to existing products consumers can’t tell the difference.  The method used is to engineer artificial code into microbes and then ferment them on a large scale in vats. Manufacturers use the word “natural” because fermentation is involved.

Some existing and proposed products resulting from this application are artificial biofuels, vanilla, stevia, ginseng, wine, mint, cocoa, caffeine, scents, cleansers and soaps. (See “Are GMOs 2.0 in your Food and Cosmetics”; “What is Synthetic Biology: The Comic Book”).

New Life Forms. Another application is the engineering of completely new genetic codes and life forms. Current players in this sphere include the “DIY” community, students, and start-ups.  A code can be created on the computer and 3-D printed. The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (IGEM) is a university and high school competition for building “biobricks” (like lego) to operate in living cells. A recent commercial example of a new life form is a plant that glows in the dark.

Bio Weapons. A third application is military.  In the US, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) provides the most funding for synthetic biology in the US government (although the extent to which this is funnelled to bioweapons is not known). In the US, the Army, Navy and Office of the Secretary of State are also funding synbio. (See Extreme Genetic Engineering and the Human Future, p 31).

What is the Concern?

The concern is we don’t know if the new technologies are safe. Why not? Because we don’t completely understand the interactions that occur in living organisms and ecological systems.

Organisms are complex systems in which chemical reactions “fire” at different times and places along interconnected pathways. They do not behave in linear “cause and equal effect” ways, in either space or time. A gene is part of this system. It is a strand of DNA that messages or “fires” at times (or refrains from “firing”) and brings about an action or change in an organism. Similarly, ecological systems are complex systems.  They rely on species interconnections and interactions which also don’t behave in linear “cause and equal effect” ways.

If a complex system does not behave in a linear fashion, the workings of the systems cannot be known ahead of time and its effects cannot be predicted.  Similarly, the effects resulting from a change to one aspect of a system cannot be predicted. The effects can only be known “after the fact”, and, depending on the system, these effects may vary.

This inability to predict the results of a change in the system was the problem with GMOs 1.0, and is the same problem with these new techniques.  The concern will exist every time one of the new techniques is used in a complex living system. The scientific literature even acknowledges that there are often “unintended” or “unpredicted effects” associated with the products of genetic manipulation.  New substances are often created. Even CRISPR-Cas9 technology admittedly has the problem of being “off-target”.

Historical Examples 

The concern of unpredictability is underlined by historical examples of GMOs 1.0 gone wrong. In the late 1990s and early 2000s several people died as a result of reactions to gene therapy procedures, the most notable of which was 18 year old Jesse Gelsinger.  He died from a severe immune reaction to the viral vector used to transport engineered genes. Another example is the food supplement L-Tryptophan.  Genetic modification of the supplement created a new toxin that is linked to EMS, a disease that killed 80 people and afflicted thousands in the late 1980s, early 1990s.  (See “L-Tryptophan”).

Examples of agriculture GMOs 1.0 gone wrong include the case of canola. In 1995 Canada became the first country to approve commercialization of genetically engineered canola. GM canola has now spread and eliminated natural canola almost everywhere in Canada. Other examples of GM plants that have spread uncontrollably are: creeping bentgrass in the USA; cotton and maize in Mexico; BT poplar in China; Bt rice in China; and canola in Japan, the US, Australia and the EU. (See Transgene Escape by TestBiotech).

Supersized Concerns

The concern of unpredictability is more pronounced with these new synbio and gene editing techniques than with GMOs 1.0. Reason? The applications of these new techniques are very broad in scope, and their effects can be devastating.

Gene Drives. The scope of gene drives is obviously major. It extends to the possible extinction of a species, and resulting degradation of its ecosystem.  Even the National Academy of Sciences of the US, in a June 2016 report (at 86), admits that: “[R]eleasing a gene-drive modified organism into the environment means that a complex molecular system will be introduced into complex ecological systems, potentially setting off a cascade of population dynamics and evolutionary processes that could have numerous reverberating effects”.

GMOs 2.0. The scope of GMOs 2.0 extends to the food humans and animals eat and to the environment. The lack of current regulation and the speed at which the products are being advanced means the GMO 2.0 technologies and products will likely be used before they are assessed. This is even though the effects with GMOs 2.0 are compounded.  Testbiotech indicates that with the new gene editing techniques, a single step can be applied several times, causing large changes; plants and animals with genetic changes can be crossed with each other;  different techniques can be used in combination with each other; and that even small steps, if repeated, enable radical changes in the genome.

Foods, Flavours, Fragrances. The scope of the synbio application is enormous, on many fronts. The flavours and fragrance market is advancing quickly:  it was a US $26.5 billion market in 2016 and is expected to grow to over US $35 billion by 2019. Lux Research indicates synbio will be a “permanent and growing aspect” of the flavours market. A major socioeconomic effect is the displacement of natural botanical farmers: 95% of varieties of natural crops are grown by small-scale farmers, more than 20 million of whom depend on these crops for their livelihood.

The new compounds themselves are pervasive in our consumer products without being identified (except they might be called “natural”).  Common names include:  method, Ecover, patchouli, PeterThomasRoth, Evolva, Clearwood, TerraVia, Neossance Biossance, Eversweet (in Coca Cola Life), Agarwood Oil, Muufri animal free milk, among others.  The effect of these compounds on human beings has not been subject to regulatory assessment, even though they are biologically different than the natural botanical substances.

New Life Forms.  The synbio creation of new life forms in the DIY community is advancing, and there is no way to monitor the proliferation of this technology. The September 2016 report of Genome editing: an ethical review points out that a number of websites provide lab and other support services for amateurs, and DIY CRISPR kits are available on line.  A code can be 3-D printed and Fedexed for less than $100. The seeds and kit for the new glowing plant can be ordered on-line. The potential for intentional and unintentional release obviously exists, again with no regulations in place.

BioWeapons. The scope of the military application of synbio is not known, but appears to be growing as increasing amounts of government funding are directed toward the technology. The obvious risks are the inability to recall a release, and the potential for a release to be off-target.

In Sum

New technologies are advancing quickly and new products and substances are in our world.  Genes can now be created from scratch, a wide array of new products and foods can be created with greater precision, and whole species can be affected. The concerns around safety and unpredictability are the same, but the resulting risk profile has increased dramatically. We would do well to learn the new words.

Oct 202016
 
tobacco

Tobacco plantation. Ikhlasul Amal/Flickr CC

by Chee Yoke Ling and Edward Hammond (Project Syndicate)

AUSTIN, TEXAS – Four hundred years ago, John Rolfe used tobacco seeds pilfered from the West Indies to develop Virginia’s first profitable export, undermining the tobacco trade of Spain’s Caribbean colonies. More than 200 years later, another Briton, Henry Wickham, took seeds for a rubber-bearing tree from Brazil to Asia – via that great colonialist institution, London’s Royal Botanic Gardens – thereby setting the stage for the eventual demise of the Amazonian rubber boom.

At a time of unregulated plant exports, all it took was a suitcase full of seeds to damage livelihoods and even entire economies. Thanks to advances in genetics, it may soon take even less.

To be sure, over the last few decades, great strides have been made in regulating the deliberate movement of the genetic material of animals, plants, and other living things across borders. The 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, in particular, has helped to safeguard the rights of providers of genetic resources – such as (ideally) the farmers and indigenous people who have protected and nurtured valuable genes – by enshrining national sovereignty over biodiversity.

While some people surely manage to evade regulations, laboriously developed legal systems ensure that it is far from easy. The majority of international exchanges of seeds, plants, animals, microbes, and other biological goods are accompanied by the requisite permits, including a material transfer agreement.

But what if one did not have to send any material at all? What if all it took to usurp the desired seeds was a simple email? What if, with only gene sequences, scientists could “animate” the appropriate genetic material? Such Internet-facilitated exchanges of biodiversity would clearly be much harder to regulate. And, with gene sequencing becoming faster and cheaper than ever, and gene-editing technology advancing rapidly, such exchanges may be possible sooner than you think.

In fact, genes, even entire organisms, can already move virtually – squishy and biological at each end, but nothing more than a series of ones and zeros while en route. The tiny virus that causes influenza is a leading-edge example of technical developments.

Today, when a new strain of influenza appears in Asia, scientists collect a throat swab, isolate the virus, and run the strain’s genetic sequence. If they then post that strain’s sequence on the Internet, American and European laboratories may be able to synthesize the new virus from the downloaded data faster and more easily than if they wait for a courier to deliver a physical sample. The virus can spread faster electronically than it does in nature.

More complicated viruses and some bacteria are in the range of such techniques today, though wholly synthesizing a higher organism with a more complex genome, such as maize, is many years away. But that may not matter, as new gene-editing technologies, like CRISPR-Cas9, enable scientists to stitch together complicated new organisms, using gene sequence information from organisms to which they do not have physical access.

For example, the key traits of a drought-resistant maize from a Zapotec community in Oaxaca, Mexico, might be reproduced by editing the genes of another maize variety. No major new advance in the technology is needed to unlock this possibility.

What is needed is the genetic sequences of thousands of types of maize. Those data act as a sort of roadmap and resource pool, enabling scientists to compare sequences on a computer screen and identify pertinent variations. The selected adjustments might then be made to, say, the parents of a new Monsanto or DuPont Pioneer maize hybrid.

Managing access to large genomic databases thus becomes critically important to prevent a virtual version of the theft carried out by Rolfe and Wickham. And, indeed, in an unguarded e-mail released under the US Freedom of Information Act, one of the US Department of Agriculture’s top maize scientists, Edward Buckler, called such management “the big issue of our time” for plant breeding.

If agricultural biotechnology corporations like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer – not to mention other firms that work with genetic resources, including pharmaceutical companies and synthetic biology startups – have free access to such databases, the providers of the desired genes are very likely to lose out. These are, after all, wholly capitalist enterprises, with little financial incentive to look out for the little guy.

In this case, that “little guy” could be African sorghum growers, traditional medicinal practitioners, forest peoples, or other traditional communities – people who have created and nurtured biodiversity, but never had the hubris or greed to claim the genes as proprietary, patented inventions. All it would take is for someone to sequence their creations, and share the data in open databases.

Yet open access is the mode du jour in sharing research data. The US government’s GenBank, for example, doesn’t even have an agreement banning misappropriation. This must change. After all, such no-strings-attached databases do not just facilitate sharing; they enable stealing.

The question of how to regulate access to genetic sequence data is now cropping up in international discussions, including at the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Perhaps the most important forum for such discussions is the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the main treaty regulating access to biodiversity. The next meeting (COP 13) will take place in Cancún, Mexico, in early December.

Participants at COP 13 must focus on the need to protect the rights of resource providers. To this end, they should pursue a careful assessment of existing policies and craft the necessary changes – before synthetic biology outpaces legal systems and renders them impotent.

Arrangements must be made to supervise access to genetic sequences in a way that ensures fair and equitable sharing of benefits from their use. Otherwise, decades of work to promote conservation and prevent piracy will be undermined, endangering the biodiversity convention – and those it protects