Plan to merge labs for biofuel research criticized

From the San Francisco Chronicle

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.

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

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