A Pandora's Box Moment? Synthetic Biology Breakthrough Tied to Search for Cheap Biofuels
By Annie Shattuck and Scott Lensing
The J. Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics Inc. announced the successful construction of the first self-replicating synthetic organism on May 21, 2010. What might this mean?
Using the essential building blocks of DNA to create sequences from scratch, synthetic biology moves far beyond the genetic shuffling and rearrangement that characterizes current genetic modification, and instead reaches into a wholly new realm of human environmental intervention. Last week’s breakthrough was the first time an organism took up and replicated the synthetic DNA. But for Venter, the project is less about scientific advancement than turning a profit. Venter's company, Synthetic Genomics, secured a deal with ExxonMobil to create a synthetic algae that theoretically will be able to absorb carbon dioxide from the air and convert it to biofuel.
According to researcher Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, who has spent the better part of a decade tracking developments in Synthetic biology "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. Synthetic biology is a high-risk profit-driven field, building organisms out of parts that are still poorly understood. 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 life-forms."
While the Venter Institute promises numerous societal benefits from its scientific breakthrough,” critical questions still surround the inherently unknown environmental impact of this completely new practice. The development of a synthetic life form significantly heightens the usual concerns regarding genetically engineered crops, as the basic components of these genomes, let alone the genomes themselves, do not occur anywhere in nature.
With no precedent for the interaction between synthetic genomes and naturally evolved organisms, pushing these new, poorly-understood genomes from the lab into the environment could have profound effects on our food and agricultural systems. The concentration of this technology in a few corporate hands that have exclusive access to information on the genomes raises questions on transparency and oversight, and necessitates the role of government regulatory bodies in dictating the terms by which synthetic biology is used. Rigorous scientific testing and intense oversight by groups that are not financially invested in the “syn-bio” agenda remains an absolutely crucial step before the commercial release of this technology is even seriously considered.