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Scientists and industrialists in the controversial new field of synthetic biology (building life-forms from scratch) are meeting in Zurich, Switzerland this week amidst claims that the world’s first entirely human-made organism may be only weeks away from creation. Swiss and international civil society groups are calling for swift action to control this technology but the scientists themselves are advancing pre-emptive proposals to evade regulation. As scientists meet in Zurich, the UK’s Royal Society and the Swiss government announce plans to investigate synthetic biology.
Synthetic Biology 3.0
An international scientific congress, Synthetic Biology 3.0, is meeting in Zurich from 24-27 June to discuss the latest advances in Synthetic Biology – the new field of extreme genetic engineering that attempts to build synthetic life forms. Synthetic biologists contend that all the parts of life can be made synthetically (that is, by chemistry) and then engineered together in the laboratory to produce “living machines” – fully working organisms programmed for particular tasks. Some are being designed for intentional environmental release. Today there are about a dozen synthetic biology companies worldwide plus almost 70 commercial ‘gene foundries’ that manufacture designer DNA molecules for industrial use. The first commercial products using synthetic biology (e.g., a textile fiber by DuPont) are about to enter the market and there are concerns that dangerous pathogens, such as smallpox or Ebola virus, could now be constructed as bioweapons. Because synthetic biology goes far beyond the genetic engineering techniques previously used to develop genetically modified food and drugs, no laws have yet been developed that address its safety, security and societal risks.
“Once more a new technology is storming ahead with no government or international body able to regulate or control it,” says biologist Florianne Koechlin from SAG (the Swiss Working Group on Gene Technology). “Once more we hear from the scientific community, supported by industry and the military, that they have life under control and will soon be able to construct it. But life is more than the sum of its parts.” Koechlin is a member of the Swiss government-appointed ethics body that will investigate the implications of synthetic biology later this year.