Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, DOE, and UC Berkeley’s New Bay Area Bio-Lab is Creeping into the News: But What’s the Untold Story?

by Jeff Conant, Global Justice Ecology Project

January 19, 2012 – Last September, Climate Connections ran a letter of concern from the Council for Responsible Genetics and the Alliance for Humane Biotechnology about a massive new research facility being planned for the San Francisco Bay Area, as a second campus of Lawrence Berkeley National Labs (LBNL). The announcement of the lab site was expected by late last year, but has been postponed until early 2012.

Meanwhile, concerns continue to run high among those who are aware of the lab’s implications; a few weeks into 2012, we are beginning to see word about the lab in the local news. Most reports reliably mention Lawrence Berkeley’s having spawned 13 Nobel Laureates, and being former home to Steven Chu, Obama’s Energy Secretary. Reports also commonly give an uncritical nod to LBNL’s role as a pioneer in private-sector funding for University research, and note, without much particular interest, that such funding has launched a generation of scientist-impresarios on incredibly lucrative business careers.

What isn’t mentioned so clearly, or is left out altogether (as in this article from the East Bay Express) is that the new lab will focus on synthetic biology – a new, high-powered field of research that combines the tools of biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, computer science, and nanotechnology, with the corporate entrepreneurial spirit of big pharma and a sort of hypermodern replay of the old advertising adage, “better living through chemistry”.

Nicknamed “Extreme Genetic engineering” or “Biohacking,” synthetic biology, (or syn-bio) goes Genetic Engineering one better: rather than moving individual genes from one species to another, syn-bio engineers entirely new genetic sequences and constructs novel microbes programmed to behave as industrial machines that can, for example, eat biomass (plants) and excrete anything from pharmaceuticals to vanilla extract to rubber to jetfuel.

Synthetic DNA is used to fabricate biological building blocks – often called “BioBricks” – capable of being combined in many different ways. “Parts” are assembled into “circuits” which are inserted into a “chassis” to create designer microbial factories that can be “booted up” to manufacture proteins or detect molecules that nature herself may never have dreamed up.

KQED’s recent report Six Bay Area Cities Play the Waiting Game describes the cities’ anxious vying for the new lab, which comes with such difficult-to-consider factors as the need for two new freeway entrances, two new BART stations, and concern over the rising waters of San Francisco Bay. A prior KQED report from December 2011, Biofuels Face a Reality Check, addressed the problems in scaling up biofuel/agrofuel production, as they play out through two of the key Bay Area labs.

The technical problems of biofuels, KQED reports, are being worked out by scientist-impresario Jay Keasling, the founding director of the Bay Area-based Joint Bioenergy Institute (JBEI), and by Chris Somerville, Director of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI). JBEI was founded 5 years ago with a $125 million grant from the Department of Energy, with the mission of creating cellulosic biofuels; EBI, also run by UC Berkeley, LBNL, and the Department of Energy, was started with a $500 million grant from British Petroeleum.

What we don’t learn from these two news reports, is the link between the Biofuels issue and the soon-to-be-announced new campus of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Indeed, almost nowhere in the news do we learn the proposed purpose of the lab. Even the project developers, it seems, are hesitant to make known the actual purpose of the lab, though clever neighborhood residents like Zelda Bronstein are wise to their PR plans as revealed through the developer’s polling tactics.

Synthetic biology is pitched as “cool science” – an enthralling world of lucrative, cutting edge research spearheaded by outsized young vanguardists sporting an aura of entrepreneurial genius, an element of mad scientist, and a dash of rock star.

But, while there are a handful of very compelling star scientists at work in synthetic biology, the image of a hip, personality-driven industry provides a convenient smokescreen for some of industry’s most recognizable brand-names. Just as the British Empire’s scientific expeditions were underwritten by the Crown under the auspices of the British Royal Society, this new avenue of research – which has its own aspect of imperial pursuit, in the need for feedstocks of sugarcane and tree cellulose – is largely underwritten by the fossil fuel industry, big pharma, and the chemical complex.

Jay Keasling’s flagship company, Amyris, funded by Total, Mercedes-Benz, Bunge and the Department of Defense, is but one example; another Bay Area firm, Solazyme, works with Chevron and the US Navy; while Synthetic Genomics, also in the Bay Area, partners closely with ExxonMobil. Indeed, the entire project of synthetic biology, while often portrayed in the science press as the project of a few charismatic front-runners, is financed by the deep pockets of the world’s largest, and most destructive, industries.

As a new and largely unregulated lab science, synthetic biology also comes with a host of health and safety concerns for lab workers and local communities. As labor advocate Steve Zeltzer asked in a recent broadcast on Berkeley’s KPFA radio, Is Our Health And Safety Under Threat from A Synthetic Biotech Laboratory In The East Bay?

Journalist Richard Brenneman is also following the issue, having uncovered a recent Wikileak concerning Amyris, an agrofuel firm spawned at UC Berkeley, run by Jay Keasling, and perpetuated with a hefty cash infusion from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation (as well as the aforementioned fossil fuel giants and the US Government). Brenneman also covers the problems facing Barack Obama’s Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, who, as Director of the Lawrence Berkeley labs, played a key role in landing UC Berkeley the $500 million BP agrofuel program.

Over on the east coast, an applied sciences and engineering campus in New York City promises “$6 billion in economic activity,” “More than $1 billion in private capital investment on the site,” “Nearly 8,000 construction jobs,” “Thousands of well-paying permanent jobs in diverse fields,” and an “Estimated 400 new companies.” But these grand pronouncements are nowhere accompanied by a transparent discussion of the nature of the research and its implications.

In late March of this year, the San Francisco Bay Area will host a critical dialogue about synthetic biology and the new lab. In the meantime, let’s hope that the word spreads beyond the blogosphere, and that the press begins to ask the right questions – like, what is synthetic biology, and how wise is it to build a synthetic bio lab on an earthquake fault in a major metropolitan area?

It’s good that the media is beginning to dole out news on the proposed new lab; but unless we dig beneath the cool surface of this experimental science funded by the old guard of the fossil fuel, big pharma, food and finance industries, we’re likely to get lulled into a quick complacency about this new, heartily green-washed industry that is neither safe, nor sound.