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Apr 152013

SynBioWatch Press Release:

For Immediate Release

April 15, 2013

Contact: Lisa Archer, Gopal Dayaneni, or Tina Stevens, , (510) 982-1285,

Pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Aventis and Amyris Biotech founder Jay Keasling have announced that they intend to replace the entire world supply of the World Health Organization’s preferred anti-malarial treatment derived from botanical artemisinin with a semisynthetic product which employs synthetic biology, a controversial, unregulated biotechnology.

Speaking at a conference in Cambridge, UK, Keasling said, “Moves are afoot to replace the entire world supply” of artemisinin, which is currently produced by thousands of farmers in Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Mozambique, India, Vietnam and China who cultivate sweet wormwood, the natural source of artemisinin. The statement was confirmed in a release by Sanofi outlining their plan to begin large-scale production.

Currently unregulated, synthetic biology is an extreme form of genetic engineering that involves replacing the genetic material of microbes with entirely artificial human designed gene sequences, resulting in new organisms that are then ‘put to work’ as microbial ‘factories.’

The news raised a host of red flags among civil society organizations concerned about the impact on farmers, the lack of regulation and the potential impacts on humans and the environment.

Repudiating Sanofi’s claim that existing supplies are “inconsistent,” the Assured Artemisinin Supply Initiative says that farmers currently provide the world with an effective, stable supply of the drug. “The commercialization of synthetic artemisinin is a head-on assault against farmers who are growing Artemisia annua,” said ETC Group’s biotech watchdog, Jim Thomas. “With seemingly little consideration of the real-life feasibility of what he suggests, Keasling offers that these farmers can simply switch to growing potatoes or wheat instead. But these farmers are now growing Artemisia annua because it helps them bring in badly-needed income.”

“Studies of artemisia show that whole plant therapy is both more economical and more broadly beneficial than purified artemisinin, of which this new drug is an analogue[1],” said Jeff Conant, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth and author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health. “Using the whole plant decentralizes production, supports smallholder farmers, makes an effective therapy affordable, and can stimulate developing economies – all of which actually address the root cause of the malaria pandemic, which is poverty. This new drug does exactly the opposite.”

Furthermore, health and safety concerns about synthetic arteminisin have not been addressed adequately. “Whether botanically-derived artemisinin and synthetic artemisinin behave the same way in the human body is unknown,” said Jaydee Hanson of International Center for Technology Assessment. “Sanofi should make public all of that data before the drug is used in trials on patients. Prescribing a synthetic biology-produced drug such as artemisinin is an unregulated experiment. Who will be responsible for long-term follow-up to assess injury?”

In addition to Amyris, Keasling also holds posts at the University of California and Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, which are spurring the expansion of biotech development in the San Francisco Bay Area with state, federal and private money. According to Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation and host of SynBioWatch’s speaker series, East Bay Conversations: The Promises and Perils of Biotechnology, “Everything from zoning and tax law are being flipped to incentivize the growth of these labs. But the easily doled out false promise of “green” jobs, “clean fuel” and cheap drugs here at home is cover to justify wiping out land and livelihoods for families in the Global South.”

Over the past few years, despite concerns over regulation, ethics, and safety of both the process and products of synthetic biology, the industry has moved to commercialize a host of microbially derived products including cosmetics, flavors, fragrances, and pharmaceuticals.

In 2011, 58 organizations from 22 countries sent an open letter to the President’s Bioethics Commission disapproving of its lax recommendations on synthetic biology.  Last year, over 111 civil society groups from around the globe endorsed “Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology.”  According to Tina Stevens, Director of the Alliance for Humane Biotechnology, “The well-founded concerns behind such actions are ignored while science-entrepreneurs dazzled by patenting possibilities launch projects that will net them millions — whether or not their promises are  realized and in spite of feasible low tech alternatives”

For more information, visit:

SynBioWatch is a network of civil society organizations that offers critical perspectives on the synthetic biology industry grounded in ethics and social, economic, and ecological justice (

For a background briefing on the Synthetic Artemisinin Project and its possible impact on farmers see:





Mar 132012

by Elizabeth Pennisi on 13 March 2012, 2:57 PM |

Cross-posted from Science Insider

Synthetic biology needs more oversight, and the government needs to put in place regulations specific for this field. That is the bottom line for 111 environmental, watchdog, and other organizations that released a report today with specific recommendations for managing new biological techniques for building and remaking organisms for research and commercial uses ranging from medicines to biofuels.

Calling synthetic biology “an extreme form of genetic engineering,” the report said that current practices for regulating and assessing biotechnology were inadequate. The group, which includes the watchdog organizationsETC Group and Friends of the Earth, wants to ban the use of synthetic biology to manipulate the human genome or the genomes of microbes in and on the human body. Full disclosure of the nature of the synthetic organisms and of safety testing should be required to ensure the safety of workers and the environment. Until these regulations are in place, the group wants a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms and their products.

In 2010, a presidential bioethics commission took a close look at synthetic biology and said that no new regulations were required. At that time, ETC and Friends of the Earth joined forces with other organizations to protest the commission’s conclusions.

In its report, the commission made 18 recommendations to the federal government, specifying what various agencies needed to do to ensure the safe development of synthetic biology. Last month, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., issued a scorecard showing how little had been accomplished, despite a June 2012 deadline for seven of the goals. “Based on the [commission’s] recommendations, very little has been done,” says Todd Kuiken, an environmental scientist at the Woodrow Wilson Center who specializes in synthetic biology. But whether this new report prods the government or industry to action remains to be seen, he points out. “It depends on how the public is engaged with it.”

Hillary Wicai Viers, spokesperson for the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, said the commission considered its synthetic biology efforts just a first step and welcomes this new input. “It’s important that views are heard from a wide range of people,” she noted in an e-mail.

But Brent Erickson from the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) calls the report absurd. “[With] the shrillness of its tone and its lack of objectivity, I don’t’ think it’s really helpful to policy-makers and the public.” He points out that synthetic biology is in many ways a relabeling and evolution of biotechnology that’s been going on for decades. While he agrees that existing rules and regulations may eventually need upgrading, “it’s not like we don’t have experience in dealing with those organisms,” he points out. “There are a lot of safeguards in place.”

Jul 082014

This article originally appeared in the Guardian.

Synthetic biology is attracting attention from both scientists and regulators. But there is little agreement on what it is. Can we find a road out of synthetic biology’s definitional quagmire?

by Jim Thomas


Photo: Sfreimark

He was looking quite lost. An eminent scientist and UN delegate was stumbling over the meaning of a term that has been the subject of recent international debates: “synthetic biology.” Often called “extreme genetic engineering,” synthetic biology usually refers to new genetic engineering approaches that give technicians exacting control over an organism’s genome. But it’s not quite that easy.

“For several years I’ve been discussing and promoting the importance of assessing synthetic biology,” he explained at the UN Convention on Biodiversity’s scientific negotiations (SBSTTA 18) in Montreal. “Now I find myself not so sure what it even means”.

That same day, “green” laundry detergent maker Ecover responded to acampaign led by environmental and consumer groups demanding that the company stop using algal oil produced using synthetically modified organisms. Ecover, which had been identified a few weeks earlier by the New York Times
as the first consumer brand to openly use a synthetic biology-derived ingredient, now flatly denied doing any such thing.

In the New York Times article and previous conversations, the company had seemed comfortable using the “synthetic biology” moniker to describe their new ingredient. After tens of thousands of angry comments and petition signatures from consumers, they had changed their minds. But rather than withdraw the ingredient, they decided to re-draw the definition.

According to Ecover’s response, Synthetic biology is the process of creating DNA from scratch or inserting human-made DNA into an organism.” Having asserted this new, narrow definition, Ecover concluded that “allegations that we are using synthetic biology are untrue.”

Synthetic biology proponents in the business world were surprised. Maxx Chatsko of trade group SynBioBeta retorted that “The oils [Ecover] sourced from Solazyme are most certainly created with synthetic biology.”

Chattsko warned Ecover that it can’t “have it both ways”. “This could backfire if consumers feel they are being lied to or question why Ecover is going back and forth with definitions”.

Ecover is muddying the waters, but it didn’t create the confusion that it is exploiting. A recent survey identified 35 different definitions of synthetic biology.

Papers prepared for the Convention on Biodiversity last month identified specific Syn Bio techniques such as “directed evolution” and “metabolic engineering,” while some scientists pointed to new epigenetic and RNA manipulation techniques that don’t engage with DNA at all. Delegates referred to synthetic biology as a “basket” of varied and rapidly changing techniques. Todd Kuiken of the Woodrow Wilson Centre pointed out that two years ago, many synthetic biologists were embracing Gibson assembly (as in this fun video), but this year CRISPR, a genome editing technique, is all the rage. Next year it will be something different. (Ecover’s definition would include Gibson assembly but cut out CRISPR.)

The road to a shared definition of Syn Bio is riddled with disputes. Four years ago, the head of a US presidential inquiry remarked that if you get five synthetic biologists in a room, you will end up with six definitions. Responding to this quip, leading synthetic biologist Drew Endy advised the inquiry to “not stress out about it too much,” citing previous attempts that ended in frustration. At least one group of scholars has decided to pragmatically define synthetic biology as effectively “what synthetic biologists do.”

As more Syn Bio products enter the market however, neither tautology or the “don’t stress” approach will help the governments that are realizing that Syn Bio needs to be regulated, assessed and monitored.

Increasingly, industry strategy is to do away with the Syn Bio label altogether. At a public relations strategy meeting in San Francisco in may, representatives from synthetic biology companies agreed that the term “synthetic biology” was off-putting to consumers. They decided it would be better to call their products “fermentation-derived” or “nature-identical”.

Solazyme, the firm that provides Ecover’s algal oil, admitted to me some months back that they had dropped all references in their communications to “synthetic biology” around 2009. Before that, theirweb site and press releases had proudly declared that they were a “synthetic biology company.”

Before 2009, Solazyme also shared technical details of their “platform,”making it a little easier to assess exactly how they were tinkering with life. Now, they only offer euphemisms such as “optimised strains” and “working within natural oil-producing pathways”. In their recent statement,

Ecover concedes that their algal oil is genetically modified, but in the same breath asserts that “it’s just old fashioned fermentation”.

Solazyme provides some information to regulators, but not to the public. Recent attempts by the Centre for Food Safety to obtain information about Solazyme’s microbes produced 150 pages of entirely blacked out text, citing commercial confidentiality. Without a definition of synthetic biology and without information about what the synthetic biology companies are doing, synthetic biology seems more like an empty fundraising term than technology.

Despite challenges, there is a way through this definitional quagmire. Expert groups of the European Commission have just published a 40-page attempt at an “operational definition” of synthetic biology that is currently open for public comment. The analysis is excellent, but the resulting definition – though far better than Ecover’s – is probably too broad and not particularly “operational”.

It reads, in part:

“SynBio is the application of science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the design, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials in living organisms to alter living or non-living materials.”

A minority opinion in the same report provides a more concrete and sensible proposal. Synthetic biology, it explains, has clear hallmarks, concepts and approaches to look for. For starters: synthesis, rational design, artificiality, modular nature, complexity, and novelty. A sort of checklist can be drawn up that regulators can use to assess the techniques that made each new organism. Syn Bio is then defined as a process that uses any of the techniques or hallmarks on the list, which can be expanded over time.

It’s not the most elegant solution, but it’s probably the best one for a field where techniques and concepts are rapidly and constantly changing. A checklist that evolves along with the field would provide a way for international policymakers to know what they are regulating. It would also clear up any confusion that companies like Ecover might have about what they are using in products they sell to consumers.

Jim Thomas is a writer and researcher with the ETC Group – an international technology watchdog.

Sep 042013

Originally published by Friends of the Earth

Synthetic Biology Vanillin: not natural, not sustainable, not likely to be labeled, and coming to an ice-cream cone near you.

A new ingredient is about to enter the global food supply in many of our favorite foods from ice cream to birthday cake. And like many of the products of genetic engineering, it won’t be carrying a label– instead it is being marketed as “natural”. This ingredient, synthetic biology vanillin, has been created using synthetic biology (aka extreme genetic engineering) and Evolva®, the company producing this ingredient, together with the International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), plans to market its product as a food additive starting in 2014. Synthetic biology is an extreme form of genetic engineering, in which scientists write entirely new genetic code on a computer, “print” it out and then insert it into organisms to serve specific functions. Continue reading »

Sep 042012

By Jeff Conant, from Earth Island Journal, Autumn, 2012

In 1971, a microbiologist named Ananda Chakrabarty patented a bacteria genetically engineered to degrade and destroy crude oil. The next year scientists created the first synthesized gene, a bit of yeast RNA ushered into existence virtually from scratch. These discoveries, among others, raised the curtain on the science of biotechnology. Forty years later, in 2010, biologist Craig Venter, already known as a key figure behind the mapping of the human genome, announced his creation of a microbe that earned the name Synthia: “the first self-replicating species on the planet whose parent was a computer.” Between Chakrabarty’s oil-eating microbe and the birth of Venter’s Synthia, a wave of gene therapies, pharmaceuticals, genetically engineered crops, and manufactured biofuels have transformed science, medicine, industry, and quite possibly, global ecology.

artwork depicting molecules

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, genetically engineered crops account for 88 percent of the corn, 93 percent of the soy, and 94 percent of the cotton, grown in the US (by acreage). In 2011, the first commercial flight powered by algae took off from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. During the recent United Nations Earth Summit in Brazil, Amyris Inc., one of the leading companies in the emergent field of synthetic biology, flew a sugarcane-powered airplane over Rio de Janeiro. The same company, with a healthy infusion of cash from the Gates Foundation, is on the verge of releasing a malaria drug that, the company says, will be cheaper and more effective than any on the market today. The drug mimics the action of artemisia, an ancient Chinese herb. But rather than being extracted from a plant, Amyris’ drug will be manufactured within the cellular membranes of a fully synthetic strain of yeast.

The eminent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once said: “Our planet has always been in the Age of Bacteria.” But scientists’ rapidly accelerating ability to harness microbes and turn them into what the field of synthetic biology calls “platforms for industrial production” is entirely without precedent. We are witnessing a revolution in the biological sciences of a speed and scale that is dazzling to some, and more than a little frightening to others.

“If you want to change the world in some big way that’s where you should start – biological molecules,” Bill Gates toldWired magazine in 2010. The microchip revolution has transformed the globe, and men like Gates made a fortune in the process. Unlike microchips, however, microbes are alive, and the implications of tinkering with them are almost entirely unknown.

In April, the Obama administration published a report called the “National Bioeconomy Blueprint” to assess and promote “economic activity fueled by research and innovation in the biological sciences.” Annual revenues from the bioeconomy in 2010, the report announces, totaled $176 billion.

“The growth of today’s US bioeconomy,” the report says, “is due in large part to three foundational technologies: Genetic engineering, DNA sequencing, and automated high-throughput manipulations of biomolecules.” In a certain kind of translation, that means writing genetic code, printing it in vitro, and employing robotic assembly lines to insert it into living microbes. Translated further into simple English, it means inventing and breeding living things that have never before existed in nature.

“Whereas standard biology treats the structure and chemistry of living things as natural phenomena to be understood and explained,” one definition of the technology states, “synthetic biology treats biochemical processes, molecules, and structures as raw materials and tools to be used in novel and potentially useful ways, quite independent of their natural roles. It joins the knowledge and techniques of biology with the practical principles and techniques of engineering.”

Where genetic engineering inserts genes from one species into another in what many biotechnologists now call a crude, clumsy, and outdated process, the goal of synthetic biology is to create novel life forms by inserting computer-generated DNA sequences into living cells, and then propagating them. As an applied technology, synthetic biology seeks to squeeze diesel out of algae or pharmaceuticals out of yeast by changing the cellular makeup of the yeast used in the fermentation process, or the lipid excreted by the algae. A decade ago, such applications were a mere fever dream. Today, given the exponential speed at which DNA sequencing, nanotechnology, and computational biology are developing, the technology has sparked a billion-dollar industry.

A report for investors produced in 2009 by the insurance giant Lloyd’s of London notes that the speed of DNA sequencing has increased 500-fold over the past 10 years and is now doubling every 24 months. “If this rate of development were to continue,” the report notes, “it would be possible to have a personalized genome map for under $1,000 by 2020, leading to some interesting questions for life insurers.”

Nor is synthetic biology merely a science. It could be interpreted more as a worldview – a kind of techno-utopian vision that purports to “support Darwinian evolution,” as the boosterish website puts it. Or, as Craig Venter says of one of his strains of synthetic algae, the idea is “to force nature to produce things for us.” Drew Endy, a Stanford-based synthetic biologist whom The Wall Street Journal has called “the next Steve Jobs,” dreams of designing in a few years what it took nature millennia to create, and “liberating ourselves from the tyranny of evolution by being able to design our own offspring.”

Endy is best known outside the lab for fostering the field of synthetic biology writ large. As an assistant professor atMIT he founded the international Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), an annual contest that has engaged thousands of students in inventing artificial organisms and helped make syn-bio (as insiders abbreviate it) an avid hobbyists’ art. Endy has also established an open-source “Registry of Standard Biological Parts” to give lab researchers a collection of “artificial genetic constructions” to work with. The constructions, called BioBricks, are standardized DNA sequences that, when inserted into living cells, act like switches or signals, performing pre-coded functions. The operative analogy is to Lego blocks, or to transistors or semiconductor chips in a computer.

Another method, one that may help to elucidate the exotic inner workings of synthetic biology, is the re-creation of what are called “metabolic pathways” in plants in order to synthesize high-value chemical compounds. A metabolic pathway is a series of reactions that take place within a cell resulting in the creation of a chemical compound. That compound is then altered by the production of different enzymes, in specific sequences, leading to the creation of another compound which is what we recognize as the product of the plant: rubber, say, or nicotine or vanilla. Synthetic biologists engineer these pathways in order to change the compound that is created. By building a metabolic pathway from scratch using synthetic DNA and then inserting it into a microbial host – say, a yeast cell – scientists change the way the cell metabolizes sugars in order to create marketable compounds on demand.

As few as eight key pathways may be responsible for most of the 200,000 natural plant compounds known to science, and synthetic biologists are rapidly and systematically decoding, reconstructing, and patenting these pathways. As they create microbes that act as production platforms for their high-value chemicals, they establish start-up companies to patent, produce, and commercialize the end product.

One such company is Amyris. Founded by Dr. Jay Keasling, another of syn-bio’s leading figures, Amyris develops “renewable compounds” such as its proprietary molecule, farnesene – a petroleum alternative that can be turned into diesel, surfactants, creams, emollients, lubricants, and other chemicals. Spawned at UC Berkeley, where Keasling is a professor, the California company has been fed on venture capital, built up with support from the US Department of Energy ($25 million to construct pilot biofuel facilities), and bolstered by philanthropic funding ($42.5 million from the Gates Foundation for its malaria drug). At its plant in Emeryville, a few miles from the UC Berkeley campus, the company genetically modifies microorganisms, uses them as living factories to convert plant-sourced sugars, and employs robotics to create and test thousands of synthetic microbes a day in order to find those that are “most efficient and scalable.”

Amyris is a flagship company of the synthetic biology industry. It also demonstrates the challenges inherent to the industry. In 2010, Keasling confidently declared to shareholders that the company’s microbes could be scaled from the test tube to the refinery, “ensuring commercial quantities of fuel to stave off the peak oil crisis.” But two years later, Amyris’s diesel was running $29 a gallon – too costly to market – leading it to farm out its biofuels business to a subsidiary in order to focus on high-value products like face creams. Its malaria medication, the focus of extensive PR, has yet to yield a single vaccination. The company’s stock has fluctuated wildly, bottoming out at $1.57 a share, leading Biofuels Digest to call such fluctuations “the Amyris effect.”

Synthetic biology is in its infancy, and, despite such setbacks, is still an exploding market. Synthetic-bio based fuels and chemicals brought in $80.6 million in 2008, and the biotech watchdog ETC Group, citing industry reports, says that figure is expected to grow to $1.6 billion in 2013.

Syn-bio is the epitome of a “team science” – the kind pioneered by government labs going back to the Manhattan Project – that requires huge investment and a broad multidisciplinary approach. As such, the bulk of the firms at the bleeding edge of the industry are fueled largely either by public money or by investors from the top-tier companies in the fossil fuel, agribusiness, chemical, and big pharma sectors, or, like Amyris, by both.

Earlier this year, at a three-day confab in Berkeley, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu held forth to top corporate executives and researchers and administrators from UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Labs about the need to develop closer partnerships between industry and government. Chu, who directed the Lawrence Berkeley Labs before joining Obama’s cabinet, is a major booster of synthetic biology. In his first year as the head of DOE, the department spent over $305 million on synthetic biology research. During his tenure at Lawrence Berkeley, Chu was instrumental in stepping up the lab’s leadership in the field. He’s now doing everything he can to bolster public-private partnerships and support protégés like Jay Keasling.

In many ways, Dr. Keasling is emblematic of the public-private approach driving the syn-bio industry. The multimillionaire founder of numerous biotech start-ups, Keasling is also a lead investigator at the UC Berkeley-based Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), and is heading efforts to launch a second Lawrence Berkeley Lab campus in Richmond, CA that will be the largest synthetic biology lab in the world.

If this spate of government support, private investment, and academic enthusiasm reveals a biotech revolution that’s poised to underwrite a new wave of green economic development, its detractors fear the opposite: a commodity bubble, a bio-ethical quagmire, and, potentially, an ecological and public health catastrophe. Some observers believe the entire project to be, to some degree, a hoax.

“Most of what they are selling are ideas. Promises. Hopes for applications that really haven’t happened,” says Ignacio Chapela, a UC Berkeley microbiologist best known for his team’s discovery of GMO contamination in Mexican corn crops, and the controversy that followed. “We continue to hear that we’re five and ten years away from the next big breakthrough, but the reality is that biotechnology has always promised a never-ending frontier of innovation and technological application that will drive the world,” he says. “But they continue to draw a blank. They continue to sell stuff, and they sometimes can produce some things, but they continue to run at a loss. If you look at the markets, you’ll see that even though we have invested over 40 or 50 years, and hundreds of billions of dollars, we are still yet to make a profit, and we’re still yet to make a predictable, controllable living organism.”

Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist at UC Berkeley whose work focuses on synthetic biology labs, agrees. Referring to Chakrabarty’s oil-eating microbe, Rabinow says: “Here we are 40 years later, and they still claim to be on the cutting edge. But there are big questions about what they are actually achieving.”

Detractors fear a commodity bubble, an ethical quagmire, a public health catastrophe.

As the statements of Drew Endy, Craig Venter, Jay Keasling, and other leading scientists make clear, the science of synthetic biology thrives on speculation. What it promises is a future in which biomachines manufacture our products, eliminate our ailments, clean up our messes, and extend our lives. The venture capitalists financing the science also thrive on speculation. But as we know from the Great Recession, speculation is like a microbial broth – it breeds best in the dark. Speculation makes dreams as real as bricks, as long as it lasts. But how well does it hold up to the light of scrutiny? How well does its promise of rapid innovation and “automated high-throughput manipulations of biomolecules” hold up to oversight or regulation?

And if the promises of synthetic biology are still a ways off, what of the perils?

Civil society groups like Friends of the Earth and the Center for Genetics and Society, and technology activists like ETC Group and the International Center for Technology Assessment, raise concerns about the risks synthetic biology poses to public health and the environment. They worry about the potential uses of synthetic biology for bio-warfare, citing the long and obscure history of bio-weapons research in government labs, including Lawrence Berkeley and the nearby Lawrence Livermore Lab. President Obama’s 2010 budget provided $20 million to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a research arm of the Pentagon, for synthetic biology research. At the same time, a Congressionally mandated panel and numerous independent experts cite poor government response to the 2009 swine flu epidemic – a relatively benign threat – to point out that the US is unprepared to deal with a contagion.

It is not only bio-terror that concerns public interest groups. They’re also concerned about “bio-error.” Just as genetically engineered crops have cross-pollinated with non-GMO plants, there is no guarantee that synthetic organisms won’t escape into the environment. 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.”

While some of the industry’s key figures choose to play down concerns, no one doubts that synthetic biology is a high-risk, high-reward industry. The Lloyd’s of London report considers “What could go wrong,” and concludes that the more significant risks include “hackers producing viruses just for the kudos of having disrupted global trade,” the creation of monopolies, unexpected gene transfer, unexpected release, evolution (“GM organisms may behave as we expect in the short term, but organisms evolve”), and “unintended and unimagined consequences.”

“It is hard enough to predict how a single strand of DNA will behave when a new gene is inserted,” the report notes. “Even harder to consider how it will affect a cell or whole multicellular organism. But the difficulties in predicting how an ecosystem will behave are staggering.”

An article published in March in Nature titled “Four Steps to Stop a Synthetic-Biology Disaster,” warns: “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 argues that at least $20 million to $30 million in government research is needed over the next decade to identify and address the ecological risks of synthetic biology. The amount currently spent on these assessments is closer to zero.

artwork depicting chromosomes

In 2010, following the birth of Synthia, President Obama established a Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to examine such questions. The commission ultimately expressed faith that synthetic biology could “be developed in an ethically responsible manner.” It established no new principles of government oversight and recommended no funding for risk-assessment, preferring to allow the industry to essentially self-regulate.

Synthia’s progenitor, Craig Venter, provides one of the strongest cases for independent oversight. A recent profile inThe New York Times Magazine describes Venter “riding his German motorcycle through the California mountains, cutting the inside corners so close that his kneepads skim the pavement” and “snorkeling naked in the Sargasso Sea surrounded by Portuguese men-of-war.” Undoubtedly it takes a man of such outsize will to break the bounds of science and invention. But, without being prudish, it is reasonable to ask whether an industry driven by the likes of Venter can be trusted to conduct appropriate risk assessment.

The scientist-entrepreneurs at the forefront of syn-bio argue persuasively that the technologies are safe. But in an area of science that is moving so rapidly, there is no way to completely ensure safety. The New York Times, in a 2010 article titled “Safety Rules Can’t Keep Up With Biotech Industry,” cited numerous workers injured and killed in biolabs, including Becky McClain, a former molecular biologist at Pfizer who suffered bouts of paralysis after being infected by a genetically engineered virus. “The cutting edge can be a risky place to work,” The Times wrote.

The Center for Genetics and Society, a watchdog group, says no comprehensive framework for assessment and oversight of synthetic biology exists nationally or internationally. The main US federal agencies overseeing safety in biological laboratories are the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Institutes of Health (NIH). A 2010 report produced by the Council for Responsible Genetics points out that “the NIH guidelines are largely advisory” and “largely unenforced.” OSHA regulations, “while mandatory, do not address a broad range of potential safety issues encountered in biological laboratories.”

In the words of syn-bio critic Jim Thomas of ETC Group: “Saying that synthetic biology is regulated is tantamount to saying that the rules of the road for horse and buggy driving are adequate for car driving.”

“Even with the best intentions,” Thomas points out, “there will be escapes of synthetic organisms through clothing, waste streams and human error.”

ETC Group, Friends of the Earth, and 111 other civil society groups find the lack of oversight so worrisome that in March they called for a moratorium on the release of any synthetic organisms, “to make sure the technology does not keep developing as our laws and regulations keep getting more outdated.”

The biologists, however, take the risks in stride. “We’ve always bred plants for meeting an industrial goal,” Adam Arkin, another leading synthetic biologist at Lawrence Berkeley and UC Berkeley, told me. “Synthetic biology is trying to meet industrial goals in a way that is more efficient. And honestly, that’s a good thing.”

I asked Arkin about the risk of “horizontal gene transfer” – the poorly understood passage of genes from one microbe to another, which is one of the primary concerns that scientists raise when looking at engineered microbes.

“What if the genes you put in organism one, get into organism two? Yeah that could be an issue,” Arkin said. “But the first thing to recognize is that most of the genes that we transplant are already out there in the world, in exceptionally high numbers. Horizontal gene transfer happens all the damn time. The second thing is whether what we’re introducing into the environment is actually harmful.”

If anyone should understand the promises and perils of the field, it is Paul Rabinow. He was hired by the National Science Foundation to evaluate the security and ethical ramifications of the work being done by SynBERC and to report his findings to federal administrators. But, Rabinow says, “these are very high-powered scientists in a very competitive environment, both professionally and academically, and they simply had no time to talk to us seriously.”

From his office on the UC campus, Rabinow told me that the scientists at SynBERC, among them Jay Keasling and Drew Endy, “were negligent and indifferent” regarding ethical concerns, unconvinced of the need for stricter security measures, and “wholly tone deaf” to environmental arguments.

Rabinow made a set of recommendations to improve security and preparedness at SynBERC, but his assignment came to an abrupt and contentious end when his recommendations were ignored. Despite his protestations that the role of an ethicist is to be “outside of and downstream from” the science, he was replaced by Drew Endy, one of the field’s leading evangelists.

”They are promising technological miracles, but what are they delivering?”

“I wouldn’t say I was muzzled,” Rabinow says with a measure of rancor in his voice. “But I certainly wasn’t taken seriously. Jay Keasling’s basic response to me was, ‘If you want more money, don’t complain.’” And Rabinow says he was shut out of the presidential bioethics committee. “The only person in the US who is officially funded by the government to consider bioethics, and I’ve been consulted by absolutely no one.”

Rabinow is not in principle against the science of synthetic biology. “I hold the position that we’ve been manipulating nature for so long that there is no longer any such thing as ‘nature,’” he says. “But they wanted simple assurance that everything they were doing was fine. And we wouldn’t give them that.” He pointed out that the technology might be safe, but whether it is secure is another matter. “Safety is a lab issue,” he says. “Security is a political issue.”

In “The Deadliest Virus,” a recent article in The New Yorker, author Michael Specter cites a 2002 incident during which a researcher at Stony Brook University acquired hundreds of DNA fragments via the Internet and stitched together a functioning polio virus. Lab escapes or acts of terror based on published genomic information, Specter concludes, are a matter of if, not when.

Beyond issues of bio-terror, which Rabinow holds front and center, another concern is the ultimate purpose of synthetic biology. “They are promising technological miracles, but what are they delivering?” he asks. “Not a single person has been vaccinated with synthetic artemisinin. The BioBricks don’t work. Not a single disease has been cured by this research. They’ve been able to produce fuels from waste, but the case of Amyris shows that they haven’t been able to scale up.”

He continues: “So what are they doing? The same people have said this is genetic engineering, and this is not genetic engineering. There’s some amount of continually trying to recast what they’re doing in order to get the grants. The whole thing is a bit of a ruse.”

When I asked Arkin about the ethical issues at SynBERC, he reduced them to a problem of perception. “We speak glibly about these things, much like cattlemen speak about cattle, and maybe we shouldn’t. We harness oxen. The fact is we are harnessing these things to work for us. If the ecological sorts are upset about this, then perhaps we should find a new language to talk about it in.”

Arkin, like other syn-bio boosters, appears not to understand that the criticisms of synthetic biology aren’t just about the ethics of lab workers or the public perception of the science, but rather, the thrust of the technology. The major innovation of synthetic biology is not simply the insertion of an artificial strand of DNA into a microbe to produce a novel product. It is the convergence of multiple industrial and academic fields in the service of a single goal – the production of artificial life. And it is the assumptions behind it – that “playing God” is not only okay, but is necessary and lucrative – that are the Achilles heel of synthetic biology.

Wherever the science may go, the multi-billion dollar drive to solve the problem of artificial life has already ensured that the forces behind it – BP and Chevron, Dupont and Dow, the Pentagon and the DOE – will effectively undermine any ethical oversight or democratic governance. With the ethical concerns and regulatory roadblocks swept aside, the future looks promising for the growth of the artificial life industry. The question is whether this growth is benign or malignant.

Jeff Conant is author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health and editor of, a clearinghouse for critical perspectives on synthetic biology.

Mar 262012

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.”

Mar 132012

By Jeff Conant, for Climate Connections

Today a broad coalition of 111 organizations from around the world released The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology, the first global civil society declaration to outline principles that must be adopted to protect public health and the environment from the risks posed by synthetic biology, and to address the field’s economic, social and ethical challenges. Until these governance principles are in place, the coalition calls for a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms and products.

As part of our ongoing coverage of synthetic biology, and in conjunction with our upcoming event, Unmasking the Bay Area Bio-Lab and Synthetic Biology, Climate Connections interviewed Eric Hoffman, Food and Technology Policy Campaigner at Friends of the Earth U.S., one of the authors of the Principles.


Jeff Conant: What prompted you to draft The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology?


Eric Hoffman: We started writing the principles in response to constant calls for self-regulation, coming from the synthetic biology industry itself, and also from the President’s Commission on Bioethics in December 2010 (see NYTimes article here).  When the President’s Commission recommended self-regulation by synthetic biologists, this gave the okay for business as usual.


At Friends of the Earth, ETC Group, and the International Center for Technology Assessment, we grew tired of simply raising awareness of the need for proper regulation. We asked ourselves, what would appropriate regulations for synthetic biology look like, to prevent negative social and environmental impacts? Over the course of a year we collaborated on the principles, and have just finalized them now.


The principles we urge are the following:

1) Employ the Precautionary Principle

2)    Require mandatory synthetic biology-specific regulations

3)    Protect public health and worker safety

4)    Protect the environment

5)    Guarantee the right-to-know and democratic participation

6)    Require corporate accountability and manufacturer liability

7)    Protect economic and environmental justice


JC: And, the document calls for a moratorium on synthetic biology?

EH: The 111 signatories to the document call for a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms. We believe that in order to establish proper oversight, we need a moratorium limiting synthetic biology to work in the laboratory, until we have a guarantee that organisms can’t get out. Anything that can get out, including commercial release, needs to wait until we can develop proper oversight. We know that organisms escape all the time – the story of Becky McClain [a molecular biologist injured by an escaped organism in a Pfizer-owned lab, and later dismissed from her job for filing a complaint – ed.] is an example of the high cost of accidental release.  Current practices around biotechnology have major holes, and the current regulations are not enough, which is why a moratorium if necessary.


JC: Has there been such a call before, for a moratorium on commercial releases of synthetic biology products?

EH: This is the first document of its kind – the first time civil society has come together to say what needs to happen with synthetic biology. When we first called for oversight a few years ago, 40 groups signed on. The next year, 58 groups signed on. Now we have 111. This shows that we’re seeing increased concern, and increased awareness that synthetic biology is the next level of evolution of the dangerous arc of biotechnology.


JC: We are hosting an event in Berkeley later this month to draw attention to concerns about the new Lawrence Berkeley lab site proposed for Richmond, California – the lab will be doing synthetic biology, and no one seems to be aware of it, because LBNL is framing it simply as “renewable energy research.” Some comments have arrived to the synbiowatch website, where we are promoting the conference, that we are being ‘one-sided,’ and even ‘irresponsible,’ by not having the leaders of the synthetic biology field on our panels. How would you respond to that?


EH: Synthetic biology events hosted by industry happen all the time, and civil society is not invited to present. Some of the groups that endorsed the principles have tried to present at industry conferences and been shut out. None of the public meetings around the new campus of the Lawrence Berkeley lab even mentioned synthetic biology. If we want to have an open debate, lets do it; the purpose of this meeting on March 29 is to raise these concerns and to start a dialogue. The event is intended to push back on the lack of responsible oversight of synthetic biology.


To their credit, many synthetic biologists are thinking about the ethics of the industry – but largely without democratic participation. We shouldn’t just let them tell us how they want to be regulated. If the industry is as important as it claims to be, we need public governance. It’s not enough to have Synthetic Genomics founder Craig Venter tell us to trust him. [Venter is one of the leaders in the field, founder of Synthetic Genomics, a firm dedicated to using modified microorganisms to produce biochemicals, and the recipient of $600 million collaborative funding from ExxonMobil. – ed.]


Yet, Venter has a large grant to look at governance gaps – that is, to research why the public isn’t involved. Why is a leader in the field receiving a grant to research why his efforts are not well-known, let alone well-regulated?


JC: Do you see a debate within the scientific community on the merits of synthetic biology?

EH: Certainly there is a debate on the risks, but also on whether it will work. Numerous scientists say the field is, by and large, just a show to get more money from investors, when much of what these companies are doing is not much different from conventional genetic engineering. A lot of it is just hype. And there are serious questions about risks to health and the environment.


The question of whether the technologies of synthetic biology can reach the scale promised by the industry is key. Amyris [a Bay Area based company founded by UC Berkeley alum Jay Keasling with a $42 million grant from the Gates Foundation and significant inputs from the fossil fuel industry – ed] offers a clear example of the false promise of biofuels. They’ve been seeing themselves as a biofuels company from the beginning – but when they failed to reach the scale of production needed to make profits, they offloaded their biofuels line and moved into producing high-end cosmetic oils. To say now, as they have, that they do not want to be in biofuels, flies in the face of their pronouncements from the beginning that they are challenging the fossil fuel regime. Are they going to do this by getting into high-end oils for cosmetics – I don’t think so. If your goal is to promote alternatives to fossil fuel for energy, you don’t do it by making expensive face cream, which is what they’re doing now.


JC: If the dangers associated with synthetic biology are so grave, why a moratorium? Why not a ban?

EH: The reason is that the science is still quite new. We’re very concerned about applications, but the science behind synthetic biology could, potentially, be useful in limited fields – for looking at how DNA and living systems work, at how life began, for example. It does have possibilities for better understanding genetics and biological systems.


The reason we call for a moratorium is that we see this field moving forward too quickly without proper safeguards in place – which applications we want and which we don’t; which ones may be worth the risk, which ones are not. If, through that, society says it wants a ban, I think that would be fine to come to a ban through democratic deliberation. In fact, we do call for a ban on synthetic biology to alter the human genome. Scientists such as George Church and Drew Ende, for example, are calling for license to create re-engineered humans. We think the risks and the ethical concerns associated with this are far too great.


JC: What do you hope will happen with the principles?

EH: Today I’ll be bringing them to the Congressional Caucus on Synthetic Biology, which is made up of two people, Representative Moran of Virginia and Representative Bilbray of California. The caucus was created, we believe, at the request of Craig Venter, and we hope that the caucus will serve as a forum for critical look, and not just for PR for the industry.


Beyond that, we hope they’ll be taken up at the Convention on Biological Diversity, COP11 in India in October, as a moratorium on synthetic biology releases. We also hope that the City of Richmond will use these principles as a starting point to think about how to regulate synthetic biology in their community, following our event on March 29.


For the full report from FOE, ETC, and CTA, go


Following is the announcement forwarded to Climate Connections about the report:


New declaration calls for precautionary oversight for the emerging field of synthetic biology


WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today a broad coalition of 111 organizations from around the world released The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology, the first global civil society declaration to outline principles that must be adopted to protect public health and the environment from the risks posed by synthetic biology, and to address the field’s economic, social and ethical challenges.  Until these governance principles are in place, the coalition calls for a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms and products.


The synthetic biology industry is expanding rapidly, with a market value in 2011 of over $1.6 billion that is expected to reach $10.8 billion by 2016. However, there has been little to no governance of the industry or assessment of the novel risks posed by synthetic organisms. Synthetic biology is “extreme genetic engineering” — not just reading and rearranging genetic code, but writing it to create new genes, genetic traits and possibly entire life forms from scratch.


The global coalition calls for the following seven principles to be established to safeguard public health and the environment from the novel risks of synthetic biology and to ensure open, meaningful and full public participation in decisions regarding its uses:


  1.            I.         Employ the Precautionary Principle
  2.          II.         Require mandatory synthetic biology-specific regulations
  3.        III.         Protect public health and worker safety
  4.        IV.         Protect the environment
  5.          V.         Guarantee the right-to-know and democratic participation
  6.        VI.         Require corporate accountability and manufacturer liability
  7.      VII.         Protect economic and environmental justice


The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology marks an important milestone in the debate around synthetic biology, as it is the first document from a global coalition of civil society organizations that outlines how synthetic biology should be regulated,” said Eric Hoffman, Food and Technology Policy Campaigner at Friends of the Earth U.S. “This diverse coalition of 111 groups from around the world, including environmental, religious, consumer, scientific, worker safety and human rights groups, has come together to call for the proper governance of synthetic biology. Our recommendations are rooted in the guiding principle of placing the health of people and the environment above corporate profits.”


“Self-regulation of the synthetic biology industry simply won’t work. Current laws and regulations around biotechnology are outdated and inadequate to deal with the novel risks posed by synthetic biology technologies and their products,” said Andy Kimbrell, Executive Director of the International Center for Technology Assessment. “These principles outline the positive role local and national governments, as well as international laws, can play in protecting communities from the novel risks posed by synthetic biology.”


“In addition to the risks synthetic biology poses to human health and the environment, this technology may also deepen global social and economic injustices,” explained Silvia Ribeiro, Latin American Director of ETC Group. “Novel organisms tailored to break down biomass will enable a new bio-economy in which land, water and fertilizers used to produce food for communities in the global South will be diverted for producing biomass feed for synthetic organisms in order to produce fuels, chemicals and other high-end products for wealthy nations.”


“We are calling for a global moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms until we have established a public interest research agenda, examined alternatives, developed the proper regulations and put into place rigorous biosafety measures,” said Carolyn Raffensperger, Executive Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. “It is our obligation to safeguard the future, to be wise in our development and use of technologies which could threaten humans and the Earth.”



Eric Hoffman, Friends of the Earth U.S.,

Jaydee Hanson, International Center for Technology Assessment, 202-547-9359,

Jim Thomas, ETC Group,

Silvia Ribeiro, ETC Group, +52 55 5563

Carolyn Raffensperger, Science and Environmental Health Network,