Bay Area Biotech Boom: A Public Disaster in the Private Interest?

A Climate Connections Special Report

In advance of the upcoming public forum, Unmasking the Bay Area Bio-Labs and Synthetic Biology: Health, Justice, and Communities at Risk, to be held on March 29 in Berkeley, Climate Connections and Global Justice Ecology Project bring you this extended, in-depth look at the industry-government ties, the risks to community health and ecology, and other concerns behind the emerging synthetic biology field, as it is playing out in the San Francisco Bay Area.

By Jeff Conant, with reporting by Steve Fisher

Note: this article combines material from a number of reports by civil society groups and news sources with original reporting by Steve Fisher. For sources, contact the authors.

Climate Connections, March 21, 2012 – At the sprawling Claremont Hotel tucked into the misty, eucalyptus-clad hills above Berkeley, California last month, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu engaged a room packed with executives from the energy, chemical, and pharmaceutical sectors, as well as researchers and administrators from nearby public institutions UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Labs. Chu, who directed Lawrence Berkeley National Labs (LBNL) before joining Obama’s cabinet, highlighted the crucial role that government labs have long played in advancing industry – developing light steel for auto manufacturers like Ford, designing better batteries for electric vehicles, and unlocking the secrets of more efficient solar panels for both civilian and military uses, for example. However, Chu’s purpose was not to sing the praises of government labs. To the contrary: bemoaning “literally hundreds of unsold public patents” sitting on the shelves of government labs waiting for the private sector to build them out into industrial applications, Chu’s message was clear: government is not doing enough to meet the needs of the private sector.

The event, an invitation-only confab called “Materials for Energy Application,” was part of an ongoing effort to engage the nation’s seventeen Department of Energy-backed labs in stronger partnerships with industry. Over the course of three days, industry heads and lab administrators repeated a single key message, as echoed in the conference press materials, issued, also, by LBNL: “National Labs seek closer industry ties.”

Given the lead role of Lawrence Berkeley Lab, it comes as no surprise that a key focus of the event was biofuels, and specifically synthetic biology, the burgeoning area of research that claims it will take biofuel production out of the farmer’s field, where competition with food crops has dimmed the environmental appeal of conventional biofuels, and into the petri dish, the test tube and the DNA synthesis machine. Synthetic biology is the epitome of a ‘team science’ – the kind pioneered by government labs going back to the Manhattan Project, and that require huge investment and a broad multi-disciplinary approach.

The idea for the industry-government workshop was formed a year ago when the Energy Secretary hosted a dinner with senior industry executives and laboratory directors to discuss ways to support innovation in the energy sector. Executives expressed the desire to work with the labs, but said it was difficult to access the labs and find the right contacts. Thus was born the idea to hold a series of workshops to enhance mutual understanding and close cultural gaps between government-funded research and private enterprise.

The goal of the Berkeley conference was to break down what industry reps perceive as frustrating, bureaucratic barriers to capitalizing on the wealth of publicly funded research carried out at national labs and public universities.

“Public-private partnerships are absolutely critical to accelerating advanced materials developments, especially in the energy space,” said Theresa Kotanchek, Vice President Sustainable Technologies & Innovation Sourcing at The Dow Chemical Company, one of the conference organizers.

Lawrence Berkeley Labs Expands

Just a month before the meeting at the Claremont, LBNL announced its decision to build a 2 million-square-foot campus in the Bay Area city of Richmond to augment its facilities on the UC Berkeley campus. The day the announcement was made, if you entered Richmond on Highway 80, you would have seen an LED billboard flashing the message “Richmond Loves LBNL.”

Over the previous several years, when the University of California and LBNL sought bids for a site to host the new lab, every city in the Bay Area threw a hat into the ring. Despite the history of tension between the current lab and Berkeley residents due to what the Berkeley Daily Planet has referred to as “the lab’s utter disregard of the city’s resolutions, its Nuclear Free Berkeley ordinance, and the health, safety and comfort of the general community,” the combined effect of massive profits, an aura of innovation, and a deep green patina has proved hard for other Bay Area cities to resist. In a moment of unremitting economic recession, climate crisis, and unemployment, the promise of “green jobs” holds unquestioned allure.

Richmond is one of the Bay Area’s poorest and most industrial cities. Its residents have spent decades demanding stronger pollution control by the vast local Chevron refinery, even as the fossil fuel giant is the city’s number one employer. The new facility, promoted as a renewable energy lab, appears to many, including the city’s Green Party mayor and largely progressive City Council, as possibly the best thing to happen there since waterfront real estate.

The announcement that the second campus of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab would be built in Richmond had the business press crowing the good news. BusinessWire and the City of Richmond issued a press release announcing “the City’s successful effort to attract biosciences and green technology. Richmond hosts several green and clean tech companies that are at the forefront of energy, recycling, health, and water research,” the release gushed, “and the city is proud and excited to welcome more.”

The new LBNL Campus will be a joining of three existing labs, including the U.S. Government’s Joint Bioenergy Institute (JBEI) and the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI).  The public pronouncements and the bidding process have promoted the campus as an incubator for start-up bio-energy companies. But once built, the lab may be less green than the PR suggests. For one, these start-ups will be largely funded by the likes of BP, Shell, Chevron, Total, Dow Chemical and other extreme energy titans. In a city already embattled by Chevron, the prospect of more fossil fuel giants underwriting the city’s future may not bring the green pastures that many hope are on the horizon.

Confounding environmental concerns is the fact that the Richmond Field Station, the UC-owned property where the campus is to be built, is among more than 20 state- or federally-monitored hazardous clean-up sites along the city’s 32-mile coastline. Six of these toxic sites are located within two miles of the proposed new lab.

“Richmond is sort of California’s version of a Rustbelt city,” Dan Schwab, head of a neighborhood Community Advisory Group that has been fighting for clean-up of the Richmond Field Station, told the Richmond Confidential in 2009. “It’s like a world-class toxic waste site.”

Behind the scenes, promises of the long-hoped-for clean up of this toxic site may be part of the appeal to Richmond’s green Mayor, Gayle Mclaughlin. But thus far, no sources have come forth to confirm or deny such speculation.

The key players in the second campus, EBI and JBEI, are both products of the current golden age of public-private financing. EBI itself was incubated with a controversial $500 million grant given by BP to UC Berkeley in 2007. The Joint Bioenergy Institute, a Department of Energy lab guided by scientist-impresario Jay Keasling and currently housed in nearby Emeryville, boasts an industrial board that includes Chevron, Dupont, Boeing, BP and Arborgen (a manufacturer of Genetically Engineered trees). Jay Keasling himself, the Director of LBNL, also runs LS9, which recently sealed a 25 million dollar agreement with Chevron, and uses JBEI’s labs to develop its products. Keasling’s flagship company, Amyris, though it has turned its back on biofuels to focus on producing higher-profit scented oils and cosmetics, recently hired a senior Chevron executive onto its management.

Behind all of this corporate investment, and at the heart of the second LBNL campus, is the laboratory science of synthetic biology, an emergent field that has already shown a trajectory toward huge profits. An exploding market, synthetic-bio based fuels and chemicals brought in $80.6 million in 2008; according to market research unearthed by the tech-watchdog ETC Group, that figure is expected to grow to $1.6 billion in 2013. It is no wonder, then, that developers in Richmond and other Bay Area cities are eager to pocket the potential profits that government largesse and industry innovation will bring.

Synthetic Biology: Genetic Engineering on Steroids

Synthetic biology, a once obscure field of lab research associated with transhumanism and other cryptic efforts to engineer the human genome, is fast becoming the latest green science craze. Its proponents hold out hopes that this new wave of the biotech revolution will save us from the energy and climate crisis by growing fuels, foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics in test tubes and algae ponds. Critics have dubbed it “extreme genetic engineering,” and foresee a raft of problems, from the ethical to the ecological, to very straightforward concerns for workplace and community safety.

Where genetic engineering inserts genes from one species into another, the goal of synthetic biology is to create novel life forms from scratch by inserting computer-generated DNA sequences into living cells, and propagating them. With an array of rapidly developing bio-engineering techniques, synthetic biology seeks to squeeze jet-fuel out of sugar, or diesel out of algae, by changing the cellular makeup of the yeast used in the fermentation process, or the lipid excreted by the algae.

At the extreme end, synthetic biology lays claims toward being more creative andefficient than the natural world. Drew Endy, a Stanford professor and synthetic biologist who the Wall Street Journal says could be “the next Steve Jobs,” believes that synthetic biologists can design, in a few years, what it took “nature millennia to create”. In a debate in 2010 with Jim Thomas of ETC Group (the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), Thomas charged that Endy’s work is “likely to endanger our planet’s already depleted biodiversity.” The Stanford professor blithely responded, “Could you foresee a future where humans, by their ability to make or change living organisms, contribute to biological diversity?”

Civil society groups like Friends of the Earth, the Center for Genetics and Society, and the Alliance for Humane Biotechnology, and technology activists like ETC Group and the International Center for Technology Assessment raise concerns about the risks synthetic biology poses to security, public health and the environment. They’re also concerned about the potential uses of synthetic biology for bio-warfare, citing the long and obscure history of bioweapons research in government labs, including LBNL and the nearby Lawrence Livermore Lab. President Obama’s 2010 budget provided $20 million to the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research arm of the Pentagon, for synthetic biology research.

But it is not only bio-terror (rogue or state-sponsored) that concerns these groups; it is“bio-error”.  With no government regulation charged with oversee the emerging industry, and no understanding of potential ecosystem impacts, synthetic organisms such as algae and bacteria could escape or be intentionally released into the environment, with entirely unknown effects.

In The Deadliest Virus, a recent article in The New Yorker author Michael Specter described the risks associated with human viruses, both natural and mutated, escaping from labs. Among other instances, Specter cites the 2002 incident when a researcher at Stony Brook University acquired hundreds of DNA fragments via the internet and stitched together a fully functioning Polio virus. Lab escapes or acts of terror based on published genomic information, Specter concludes, are not a question of if; they are a question of when.

Just like cross-pollination from genetically engineered plants, even if systems were put in place to prevent escapes, there is no guarantee. As Isaac Berzin, founder of GreenFuel Technologies Corp., the first algae-to-biofuels company, says of his algal product, a leak is inevitable, because “people make mistakes.”

Dr. Allison  Snow,  an  ecologist  at  Ohio  State  University,  explained one scenario: “A newly engineered type of high-yielding blue-green algae could be grown in thousands of acres of outdoor ponds for biofuels. Algae grown in open ponds will be engineered to be very hardy, and they could be more competitive than native strains. The new type of engineered algae might spread to natural habitats – to lakes, rivers, and estuaries – where it might flourish and displace other species. In some cases, this could result in algal blooms that release toxic chemicals into the environment.”

“It would be a bad decision to go ahead with this kind of application,” Dr. Snow concluded.

The Rise of the Rock Star Scientists

Ironically, it may be precisely this kind of high-risk scenario, along with its innovative combination of molecular biology, bio-engineering, genomics, futurism, and a huge helping of Big Business, that gives synthetic biology a rare, if not unheard-of, allure in the laboratory sciences.

At the street-level of the science, as described by author Marcus Wholsen in last year’s Biopunk, biotech geeks in diy labs combine genetic material purchased on the internet to make novel creations for fun. At the business end are vaunted rock-star scientists like Craig Venter, who created “the first self-replicating species on the planet whose parent was a computer.” A Wired Magazine portrait of Venter depicts him as a renegade Charles Darwin taking his yacht the Sorcerer II from the Galapagos to the Sargasso Sea to assay the entire Southern Ocean for as-yet-undiscovered life forms, and sending the microbes he discovers to a lab to have their genomes read.

Running neck-and-neck with Venter in the business of reinventing Science is Berkeley’s own Jay Keasling, who is angling to become a global health hero with the much-anticipated production of synthetic malaria medication based on a petri-dish version of an ancient Chinese herbal. At the government end, are, of course, the  Department of Energy, DARPA, NASA, and the Pentagon.

Like other high-tech and market-oriented approaches to the climate crisis such as geoengineering and carbon-capture and storage, synthetic biology’s appeal lies partially in the urgency brought on by global climate disaster – even as this same urgency fails to spur governments to act at the policy level.

In 2007, many of the world’s top synthetic biologists met in Ilulissat, Greenland for the Kavli Futures Symposium on Synthetic Biology and Nanotechnology. The subsequent “Ilulissat Statement” declared among other things, that “the early 21st century is a time of tremendous promise and tremendous peril. We face daunting problems of climate change, energy, health, and water resources. Synthetic biology offers solutions to these issues: microorganisms that convert plant matter to fuels or that synthesize new drugs or target and destroy rogue cells in the body… Fifty years from now, synthetic biology will be as pervasive and transformative as is electronics today.” Significantly, one of the signatories to that statement was then-director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory – current Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

In Secretary Chu’s first year heading the Department of Energy, DOE spent more than $305 million on synthetic biology research. Yet, according to a report by Friends of the Earth, of the total $430 million that the federal government spent on the field between 2005 and 2010, only 4 percent has been dedicated to examining the ethical, social and legal implications of the emerging science. According to Friends of the Earth, the quantity spent to assess environmental risk amounts to, essentially, zero.

The Biofuels Boom and Bust

While synthetic biologists like Drew Endy and Jay Keasling boast that they might one day develop methods to create new crop species and livestock, designer children, and made-to-order pets, the immediate question is, will synthetic biology lead to the next energy revolution by developing renewable green fuels?

Hobnobbing with Chu at the Claremont Hotel conference last month were the new major players in the biofuels industry, such as Dow Chemical, BP, United Technologies and Amyris. The biofuels field has grown by orders of magnitude since its early days; in 1995, the U.S produced 1.9 million liters of biodiesel; by 2006 this had grown to 1.2 billion liters, and by 2011, to 3 billion. President Obama’s goal is to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022. To reach this goal, the USDA says it needs “27 million acres of cropland”.  That’s a lot of land.

Large-scale biofuel production has been revealed to cause large-scale pronlems. Their dependence on fossil-fuel intensive industrial agriculture can make them more carbon-intensive than fossil-fuels themselves. The huge demand of biofuels for land, water, and labor contributed significantly to the 2008 world food crisis, as land use shifted on a grand scale from food production to the production of fuel. With food prices continuing to rise and a vast spate of land grabs grabbing the headlines, this crisis, many observers point out, is far from past.

Enter, then, synthetic biology, promising to end the crops-for-fuel conundrum. In 2006, Dr. Keasling announced, “Through advances in synthetic biology, we can engineer…industrial microorganisms to produce biofuels that will work within our existing transportation infrastructure…these new, advanced biofuels reduce the production of green- house gases, as they are derived from plants that use sunlight and atmospheric carbon dioxide to grow. These biofuels will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and could rejuvenate U.S. agriculture.” Similarly, Aristides Patrinos, president of Synthetic Genomics and a former member of President George W. Bush’s team at the Department of Energy calls synthetic biology “the holy grail” of energy production: “Advances in synthetic genomics are the real ‘game-changers’ that can help us reach the goal [of removing 100 billion tons of carbon from the world’s economy this century].

But laboratory-production, it appears, does little to ease the pressures on land, and the rush for land-speculation. If anything, the hope that synthetic biology will create a new post-petroleum ‘bioeconomy’ fueled by man-made microbes, may lead to more land-grabbing, not less. Most studies on the environmental impacts of biofuels, whether ‘first generation’ conventional ethanol made directly from corn and sugarcane, or ‘fourth generation’ fuels made by feeding tree cellulose to manipulated microbes, fail to take into account the full life-cycle of the process from field to fleet. As Time Magazine noted, “it is as if these scientists imagine that biofuels are cultivated in parking lots.”

ETC Group argues that the developing world, so-called, will increasingly be the target of biofuel production. “This is going to be about finding cellulosic material at the cheapest price, and that will be in the [global] South” explains Thomas. ETC Group’s 2010 report, The New Biomassters, points out that “human beings use only one-quarter (24 %) of terrestrial biomass for basic needs and industrial production, and hardly any oceanic biomass, leaving 86% of the planet’s full biomass production as yet uncommodified.” This leaves the door open for Brazil, India, Indonesia, and increasingly, sub-Saharan Africa to become, “targets of land grabs”.

Indeed, when Steve Koonin, then-head of BP America’s oil division, (and later, CEO of Amyris, and Vice Undersecretary of Energy) was asked if the company was looking at Africa as a source of biofuel feedstocks, his answer earned him notoriety: “If you look at a picture of the globe … it’s pretty easy to see where the green parts are, and those are the places where one would perhaps optimally grow feedstocks,” Koonin said.

Industry says the next generation of “cellulosic” biofuels will not compete with crops, because they’ll be grown on “unused or marginal lands”.  But for the expanding population of peasant farmers worldwide, there is no such thing as “marginal land”.

According to the Oakland Institute, in Ethiopia alone, over 3.6 million acres of arable land have already been transferred to foreign investors for biofuels and food exports. This comes as the country is experiencing unprecedented famine and food scarcity.

The Ethiopia case, or the case of Amyris buying up sugarcane in Brazil, or the vast burgeoning plantations of eucalyptus on the ‘marginal lands’ throughout the Global South, highlight Thomas’ question: “Will all plant matter become a potential feedstock? Who decides what qualifies as agricultural waste? Whose land will grow the feedstock?”

Beyond Petroleum?

“If you look at the top ten energy companies in the world, six of them are investing in synthetic biology” says Thomas.

No surprise, then that the fossil fuel giants are in on the ground floor of synthetic biology. But, while the framing of the conference at the Claremont Hotel was all about giving industry better access to public research, the fossil fuel industry has long known that the best way to access government largesse: simply purchase it outright.

In 2007 BP gave a $500 million grant to UC Berkeley to build the Energy Biosciences Institute. The BP grant was the largest ever given by a private company to a public university. Noting that “BP is at the forefront of promoting synthetic biology research,” Thomas believes that the UC-BP collaboration has been key to ensuring that the second campus of LBNL will become “the leading synthetic biology lab in the world”.

Five years ago, such a public-private collaboration and revolving door relationships still caused ripples, as the era of total corporate control eclipsed an earlier ethic that prized independent, tax-payer-funded research. The New York Times raised fears that the “alliance could harm the university’s reputation for academic integrity.”

UC Berkeley Microbiologist Ignacio Chapela, known for his groundbreaking discovery of GMO contamination of native corn strains in México (and the tenure battle that ensued when his findings were contested by a Monsanto-backed PR firm), spoke out at the time against the UC-BP collaboration and still decries the connection.

“There once was a time when people still wondered what the consequences would be of capturing the university in the field of influence of corporations,” Chapela laments.

Five years later, as public funding evaporates, the kind of deal that spawned EBI is celebrated, as universities desperately pay suit to the corporate sector. Through EBI, BP promises to “train a new generation of researchers” that will be sure to “benefit other academic projects and leading biotechnology businesses”. And BP has not wasted time in making synthetic biology the number one priority at EBI. The EBI lab has focused especially on redesigning “miracle plants” such as switchgrass, jatropha and algae to power anything from chainsaws to commercial jets to military fleets.

But who really benefits? An extensive 2010 report from the Center for America Progress called “Big Oil Goes to College” describes how not only UC Berkeley, but many other U.S. universities are being infiltrated, openly, by the extreme energy sector. The report explains that “traditional energy companies with a direct commercial stake in future energy markets have forged dozens of multi-year, multi-million-dollar alliances with universities”. In a detailed analysis, the report’s author Jennifer Washburn breaks down how publicly-funded students and professors are working on “energy-related research” for companies like BP, Chevron and Shell. The vaunted ivory tower of academia, the report concludes, has flung open its doors to perform the bidding of corporations.

While EBI is revered by many scientists as a public research lab benefiting the future of humanity, the devils-in-the-details of the official BP-UC Berkeley agreement tell otherwise. The agreement indicates that BP has full control over all research projects undertaken at EBI. Of the eight members on the governing board, four must be BP representatives. Further, the UC-BP agreement designates the EBI facility to maintain an “Open Component” – the area of the lab accessible to non-BP scientists – and a separate ”Proprietary Component”. The Proprietary Component – BP’s private lab – takes an entire floor of the building, accessible only to BP employees and “collaborating scientists”. The proprietary component is not under the EBI governing board’s jurisdiction, but refers directly to BP.

If this weren’t proprietary enough, the UC-BP agreement gives BP first chance at all patents produced from EBI research. The agreement requires that researchers allow the oil giant up to 180 days to decide whether it wants to appropriate a patent, effectively allowing BP to control EBI’s alternative energy research, whether they deem it profitable or threatening to their financial pursuits. This allows BP to do more effectively what Chevron did years ago to the electric car industry when it bought up lithium battery patents to keep electric vehicles of the road. Ultimately, the cars were recalled and literally crushed, forcing U.S. drivers to keep guzzling gas.

Paving the Way for Fukushima-by-the-Bay?

While the UC Berkeley campus gives itself over to the private sector, actively institutionalizing corporate control, what will happen at the LBNL facility in Richmond? The city has been dominated by Chevron for decades, and struggling to defend against the cancers and asthma that the oil giant has brought. Now, Chevron is second only to BP as the predominant investor in the Richmond lab complex. If the bio-economy dream pans out as the extreme energy giants hope it will, the company’s future plans in the city could far outstrip its past gains.

Industrial disasters are difficult enough to reign in, as the history of Richmond and other fenceline communities shows; with the added lack of political will, scientific understanding, and technological capacity, bio-industrial disasters may be more difficult by orders of magnitude. An article published in Nature earlier this month, called “Four Steps to Stop a Synthetic-Biology Disaster,” argues that at least $20 million to $30 million in government research is needed over the next decade to identify and address the possible ecological risks of synthetic biology.

“No one yet understands the risks that synthetic organisms pose to the environment, what kinds of information are needed to support rigorous assessments, or who should collect such data,” the authors write.

While similar questions have long been raised about genetically modified crops – and successfully stonewalled by industry and pro-industry regulators – the products of synthetic biology “will be altered in more sophisticated and fundamental ways, making them potentially more difficult to regulate, manage and monitor,” the Nature article points out.

Even with the best intentions, ETC’s Jim Thomas points out, “There will be escapes of synthetic organisms through clothing, waste streams and human error.” And with the Richmond Field Station being “one of the most earthquake prone pieces of land in the Bay Area,” Thomas likens the portent of future bio-error to “Fukushima-by-the-Bay”.

Contrary to the call by Nature for up to $30 million to assess the dangers of synthetic biology, the amount spent on these assessments now is closer to zero. President Obama’s Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues recommended in 2010 that synthetic biology be regulated using “principles of public beneficence, responsible stewardship, intellectual freedom and responsibility, democratic deliberation and justice and fairness.” But the Commission expressed faith that synthetic biology could “be developed in an ethically responsible manner,” and established no new principles of government oversight, and recommended no funding for risk-assessment, preferring to allow the industry to essentially self-regulate.

In response, just last week a group of 111 civil society organizations signed onto a new set of Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology, in which they call for a moratorium on the environmental release and commercial use of synthetic organisms. Eric Hoffman of Friends of the Earth, one of the report’s authors, said, “When the President’s Commission decided to rely on self-regulation by synthetic biologists, this gave the okay for business as usual.”

“To their credit, many synthetic biologists are thinking about the ethics of the industry,” Hoffman said, “but largely without democratic participation. We shouldn’t just let them tell us how they want to be regulated. If the industry is going to be as important to the global economy as it claims to be, we need public governance and proper oversight.”

“In order to get there with even a minimal degree of safety,” Hoffman said, “we need a moratorium to make sure the technology does not keep developing as our laws and regulations keep getting more outdated.”