Hanging in Hong Kong with the Syn Bio Crowd

Apparently in some places they call Hong Kong "Disneyland". What better place than among the sci-fitowers of this gotham-city landscape for the brave new pioneers of Synthetic Biology to gather, plan and celebrate the next stage of artificial life. For the next few days Synthetic Biology 4.0, the fourth global congress of syn bio leaders, will be meeting at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology to discuss synthetic organisms, whole genome construction, next generation biofuels and all manner of biohackery.

Astonishingly ETC Group and friends are on the agenda too. On Saturday we will be running a panel on the Global Societal Impacts of Synthetic Biology along with some civil society colleagues - Neth Dano from Third World Network, Camila Moreno from Brazilian group Terra de Direitos and Jennifer Corpuz of the Tebtebba Foundation. Edward Hammond from the sadly missed Sunshine Project is also here. In some ways its a far cry from two years ago when civil society was turned away from the same Syn Bio confab meeting in California. On that occasion we had to resort to an open letter to prevent a disastrous self governance proposal going ahead.

Those two years have changed nothing and changed everything. For the synthetic biology community themselves an unprecedented influx of commercial interest and funding has transformed Syn Bio into the new 'it' industry for investors (Synvestors?). BP, Shell, General Motors, Du Pont, Chevron, Cargill, ADM, Marathon Oil and Goodyear are among the Fortune 500 firms now palling up with synthetic biology firms. BP even sunk 600 million dollars buying up access to University of California Berkely's Syn Bio labs while also buying into Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics Inc and the trickle of oil company executives to head up Syn Bio start ups is beginning to look like a small flood. On the way to Hong kong I picked up Esquire's new list of 75 most influential people of the 21st century and was not surprised to discover that at least 3 of them are synthetic biologists.. With an agenda peppered with discussions on commercialiszng genetic parts and building a global industry. Syn Bio 4.0 might better be nicknamed SynBio 4.profit.

At the same time unfortunately nothing has changed whenit comes to governance. Despite a smattering of reports, meaningful progress on establishing accountable oversight of Synthetic Biology has stalled and doesn't look likely to start moving again any time soon. The Syn Bio express is steaming ahead with with corporations firmly in the driving seat and no limits or terms and conditions set by society.

As the conference opens ETC Group has launched a new 12-page report , “Commodifying Nature’s Last Straw? Extreme Genetic Engineering and the Post-Petroleum Sugar Economy,”. It warns that corporate biorefineries fueled by plant sugars and using synthetic microbes will create a massive demand for agricultural feedstocks, which threatens to devastate marginalized farming communities, deplete soil and water, and destroy biodiversity. Spurred on by unreal dreams of a sugar economy run only on plant biomass we are about to witness an unprecedented global plant matter. More about that later but here is the report.

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