domingo, enero 21, 2007

Grupo ETC en Nairobi denuncia biología sintética

Group Seeks Ban on "Living Machines"

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Jan 20 2007 (IPS) - Anyone with a laptop and a mailbox could create their own bacteria or virus, for good or ill, thanks to a rapidly evolving new technology called synthetic biology, activists warn.

Companies are jumping into synthetic biology and beginning to commercialise and patent bits of constructed DNA and other molecules that can be used to create living machines in the near future, the Canadian-based ETC Group warn in their report "Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology" which will be released at the World Social Forum (WSF) in Nairobi, Kenya Saturday.

"Today, scientists aren't just mapping genomes and manipulating genes, they're building life from scratch," said Pat Mooney, the executive director of ETC Group.

"And they're doing it in the absence of societal debate and regulatory oversight," Mooney said in a statement.

Although related to biotechnology, synthetic biology combines biology and engineering to build entirely new biological entities from the ground up.

In the far future, some proponents of the new technology believe synthetic biologists could construct DNA molecules and other molecular bits to grow an acorn that would become an oak tree that grows into the perfect shape of a dining room table.

More practically, researchers are using the technology to develop cheaper biofuels and drugs, remediate climate change and much more.

"Synthetic biology has the potential to transform society," says Robert Holt, a research scientist at the Genome Sciences Centre of the British Columbia Cancer Research Centre.

However, it is early days and hard to say whether important products of this new technology are years or decades away, Holt told IPS.

There are no completely new synthetic organisms yet. Scientists have recreated a polio virus and a bacteriophage -- the latter took just two weeks in 2004. A bacteriophage is a very simple life form, with just 5,000 base pairs in its genetic map. The human genome has three billion pairs.

Bacteria have around four million base pairs and the world's first de novo bacterium is expected to be announced some time this year.

"This will likely be self-replicating like other bacteria," said Hope Shand of the ETC Group from her office in North Carolina.

Self-replication poses special risks, especially in the environment, and for this reason the ETC Group wants an immediate global ban on the environmental release of these synthetic organisms.

The technology to do synbio is now accessible all around the world, Shand told IPS.

The science has evolved such that using a laptop computer, published gene sequence information and mail-order synthetic DNA, just about anyone has the potential to construct genes or entire genomes from scratch -- including those of lethal pathogens.

Each year students from around the world compete at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) International Genetically Engineered Machine to create new living things. Last year students collected various DNA components from scientists and from MIT's "biobricks" genetic repository, placed them into a string of DNA, and inserted this into bacteria to create a new strain of E. coli that smells of mint and bananas.

Those biobricks, by the way, are also freely available on-line to anyone.

"The pace of development is astonishing. In few years scientists will be able to synthesise new viruses and bacteria," she Shand said.

Bioweapons and bioaccidents are cause for real worry.

This rapid development "increases the incremental risk for biological attack", writes Roger Brent, director and president of the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California in an article titled "Power and Responsibility" published late last fall by MIT.

And it is also likely to spawn "DNA hackers" at the high school and undergraduate engineering levels in the future, Brent suggests.

However, Brent would like to see the U.S. government spend 50 million dollars by 2010 on open source standard parts, genes encoding enzymes relevant to carbon fixation, alcohol synthesis, energy storage materials, plant derived materials and functions, and chemical remediation and recycling. But strong technical defences and social norms, including punishment of pathogen-makers, would have to be in place, he writes.

Governments have not even begun to consider how to regulate the new technology, says Shand.

"We need a broad and open discussion between civil society, governments and the scientific community about the benefits and risks," she said.

Patent, intellectual property issues and the privatisation of life forms also need to be discussed, she said, adding that "self-regulation by the scientific community and industry is not good enough."

Last year, 38 civil society organisations released an open letter calling for an international discussion and review of the social, ethical and economic implications of synthetic biology.

"There will be a lot of people in Nairobi (attending the WSF) who will be eager to learn about this new technology," Shand said.


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