25 June 2007
The G(e)nomes of : Civil Society Calls for Urgent Controls on Synthetic Life
The task of framing new laws became more urgent earlier this month when ETC Group, an international civil society organisation, uncovered the first-ever patent application on a fully synthetic life form produced via synthetic biology. US patent application no. 20070122826, entitled " Minimal bacterial genome," claims monopoly ownership of a "free-living organism that can grow and replicate" whose genome (full genetic information) has been built entirely through mechanical means. Craig Venter, whose scientific institute filed the patent application, has since told Business Week that his team is only weeks or months away from having built such a synthetic organism, dubbed Mycoplasma laboratorium (nicknamed "Synthia" by ETC Group).[i] If they succeed it will mark a break with evolution as we know it.
A year ago (at Synthetic Biology 2.0 in , California) scientists attempted to advance a plan for self-governance of the field, seen by critics as a ruse to head off future regulation. Those plans were quietly dropped after 38 civil society organisations signed an open letter calling on the scientists to abandon the scheme and pursue a wider, more inclusive dialogue with society. No such dialogue has been forthcoming. This year the same proposals have largely been repackaged, and published in the June issue of Nature Biotechnology.[iv] The recycled governance proposal, authored by members of a new trade body, The International Consortium for Polynucleotide Synthesis, along with scientist-entrepreneurs and employees of the US FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), focuses exclusively on biowarfare concerns. It presents a framework where the industry body shares best practices and screening software to identify synthetic DNA that could be of interest to bioterrorists. In addition, the authors recommend a requirement that all buyers of synthesized DNA reveal their name, home institution and offer any biosafety information relevant to the sequences they are ordering. The authors feel satisfied that this 'path forward' is sufficient to top-up existing biosafety laws. Critics disagree.
Endnotes[i] John Carey, "On the Brink of Artificial Life" , Business Week, 25 June 2007 http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_26/b4040047.htm[ii] Barrett Sheridan, "Making It Happen," Newsweek International, 4 June 2007 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18882837/site/newsweek/[iv] Hans BÃ¼gl et al., "DNA synthesis and biological security," Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 25, No. 6, June 2007, pp. 627-629.