Bio-Lab by the Bay: an Op-Ed from the Berkeley Daily Planet

By M. L. Tina Stevens, PhD, Director, Alliance for Humane Biotechnology and Eric Hoffman Biotechnology Policy Campaigner Friends of the Earth

Friday February 03, 2012 – 10:52:00 AM
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Recent news coverage highlights possible benefits the expanded Lawrence Berkeley National Lab could bring the city of Richmond (“Richmond chosen as site for Berkeley lab’s second campus,” CCT 1/26/12.) But Richmond residents have reason for concern. Much of the research to be conducted at the lab will use a new, insufficiently regulated, potentially dangerous emerging technology — synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology is an extreme form of genetic engineering where biotechnicians attempt to program and write DNA in new ways to create self-replicating organisms never before found in nature. The risks this research poses to worker safety, public health, and the environment are poorly studied and poorly regulated. While the synthetic biology industry trumpets this technology’s promise for manufacturing biofuels and new pharmaceuticals, the technology is inherently risky and its claims for ushering in a “green” future are suspect.

Synthetic biology research could make existing diseases more infectious, lead to the accidental release of synthetic organisms that could disrupt local ecosystems, and expose workers to organisms with unknown risks to human health. Laboratory accidents occur too frequently for complacence. The lack of adequate bio-containment and safety protocols within existing labs has been associated with serious illness and death.

The hazards of synthetic biology – compounded by the siting of the lab on an earthquake prone low-lying piece of land abutting the San Francisco Bay – make transparency, accountability, and citizen-involved regulatory oversight non-negotiable, especially in a densely populated urban community that has long endured public health peril for industry benefit.

The lab’s work in Richmond has global implications. The campus likely will host private synthetic biology companies working to commercialize synthetic organisms to ferment fuels, medicines, and plant-based plastics. These organisms need to eat. Their food comes largely from sugars found in plants. Early indications are that large-scale harvesting of these sugars will harm communities in the Global South. Emeryville synthetic biology company Amyris, for example, has set up shop in Brazil to access cheap sugarcane, ignoring the sugarcane industry’s troubled record of modern day slavery and environmental degradation. The impact of this maneuver on people living in the region, on their land and water access, on community rights and on the health of the environment remain inadequately addressed by those standing to profit lavishly. Surely, this is not the clean, green future proffered by lab proponents.

In nearby Berkeley on March 29, a coalition of local, national and international organizations concerned by the health and environmental risks of synthetic biology will host an evening public symposium, “Unmasking the Bio Lab and Synthetic Biology: Health, Justice, and Communities at Risk.” Residents of Richmond and the Bay Area who want to learn more about what it means to welcome to their shores what is likely to become the world’s largest synthetic biology lab are invited to attend.

This article was originally published in The Berkeley Daily Planet.