For Immediate Release
Synthia is Alive … and Breeding: Panacea or Pandora's Box?
As Craig Venter announces lab-made life, ETC Group calls for Global Moratorium on Synthetic Biology.
WASHINGTON - In a paper published today in the journal Science, the J.
Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics Inc announced the
laboratory creation of the world's first self-reproducing organism
whose entire genome was built from scratch by a machine.(1) The
construction of this synthetic organism, anticipated and dubbed
"Synthia" by the ETC Group three years ago, will stir a firestorm of
controversy over the ethics of building artificial life and the
implications of the largely unknown field of synthetic biology.
Panacea, or…? According to today’s publication,
"Synthia" could be a boon to second-generation agrofuels making it –
theoretically – possible to feed people and cars simultaneously. The
article further suggests that Synthia, or synthetic biology, could help
clean up the environment, save us from climate change, and address the
food crisis. "Synthia is not a one-stop-shop for all our societal
woes," disputes Pat Mooney, Executive Director of ETC Group, an
international technology watchdog based in Canada. “It is much more
likely to cause a whole new set of problems governments and society are
ill-prepared to address."
…Pandora's Box? "This is the quintessential
Pandora’s box moment - like the splitting of the atom or the cloning of
Dolly the sheep. We will all have to deal with the fall-out from this
alarming experiment," comments Jim Thomas of the ETC Group. "Synthetic
biology is a high-risk profit-driven field, building organisms out of
parts that are still poorly understood.(2) We know that lab-created
life-forms can escape, become biological weapons, and that their use
threatens existing natural biodiversity. Most worrying of all, Craig
Venter is handing this powerful technology to the world’s most
irresponsible and environmentally damaging industry by partnering with
the likes of BP and Exxon to hasten the commercialization of synthetic
Synthetic biology refers to the construction of novel life-forms
using synthetic DNA made from off-the-shelf chemicals - a form of
"extreme genetic engineering". The team behind today’s announcement,
led by controversial scientist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, is
associated with a private company, Synthetic Genomics Inc, bankrolled
by the US government and energy behemoths BP and Exxon. Synthetic
Genomics recently announced a $600 million research and investment deal
with Exxon Mobil in addition to a 2007 investment from BP for an
undisclosed amount. Venter, who led the private sector part of the
human genome project ten years ago, has already applied for patents
related to Synthia's technology.(4)
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Although high-profile backers of synthetic biology now occupy key
positions in the US Obama administration(5) there still remains no
proper national or international oversight of new high-risk,
technologies that carry vast implications for humanity and the natural
world. In 2006, ETC Group joined with other organizations to demand the
formal, open and inclusive oversight of synthetic biology(6) and have
since called for a global halt on research pending the development of
global regulations. ETC Group has reiterated that call at a scientific
meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in
Nairobi attended by more than 100 governments.(7)
Pandemonium? The lack of global rules governing
the field also concerns many governments, illustrated by the
biodiversity talks in Nairobi. Mundita Lim of the Philippines
delegation to the CBD expressed her country’s concerns "about the
serious potential impacts of synthetic biology on biodiversity... we
believe that there should be no field release of synthetic life, cell
or genome into the environment until thorough scientific assessments
have been conducted in a transparent, open and participatory process
involving all Parties, indigenous and local communities that will all
be potentially affected by these synthetic life forms with unknown
consequences on biodiversity, the environment and livelihoods." Today’s
announcement will give new urgency to the debate on synthetic biology
and provide a dramatic example of the need for rigorous oversight over
new technologies before their environmental or commercial release is
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ETC Group is an international civil society organization based in Ottawa, Canada. We conduct research, education and advocacy on issues related to the social and economic impacts of new technologies on marginalized peoples – especially in the global South. We look at issues from a human rights perspective but also address global governance and corporate concentration. All ETC Group publications are available free of charge on our website: www.etcgroup.org