2 May 2013 Dear Antony Evans,
Request to Cancel the Kickstarter Synthetic Biology ʻGlowing Plantsʼ project.
We are writing to express our concern, in the strongest possible terms, about the project you have listed on Kickstarter, which, as currently advertised, will likely result in widespread, random and uncontrolled release of bioengineered seeds and plants produced with synthetic biology techniques. We respectfully request that this project, which poses real world risks to the environment, be abandoned as currently described.
On April 23rd you launched a project to "Create Glowing Plants using Synthetic Biology" (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/antonyevans/glowing-plants- natural-lighting-with-no-electricit). You promise, "All backers from the USA who back the project with $40 or more will receive seeds to grow a glowing plant at home. Once we have the plant, it is just a matter of breeding enough offspring to grow seeds for all backers. You can expect around 50-100 small seeds in the packet." Other levels of rewards include shipping backers a live synthetic organism (an engineered Arabidopsis plant), shipping vials of synthetic DNA and engineering a backerʼs name or message as DNA code into the genome of all the plants and seeds that will be produced. At present, over 3,000 backers have made financial pledges that amount to a promise on your part to ship approximately 300,000 viable synthetically engineered seeds around the United States for unregulated and unmonitored environmental release in about a yearʼs time. To our knowledge, this would be the first ever intentional environmental release of an avowedly "synthetic biology" organism in the world.
As you are no doubt aware, synthetic biology, while well funded industrially, is still an immature and highly experimental field and not ready for field release. Those life-forms are alive, viable, reproducing and their behavior outside the laboratory is at this point impossible to predict. It is for this reason that many of those who have so far addressed the question of how to govern this new and emerging field have erred on the side of caution and recommended against releasing synthetic organisms to the environment at this time. That is the recommendation from the 193 countries of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which, in 2010, advised:
"Parties and other Governments [are] to apply the precautionary approach in accordance with the Preamble to the Convention, and the Cartagena Protocol, to the introduction and use of living modified organisms for the production of biofuels as well as to the field release of synthetic life, cell, or genome into the
Omri Amirav-Drory, and Kyle Taylor:environment, acknowledging the entitlement of Parties, in accordance with domestic legislation, to suspend the release of synthetic life, cell, or genome into the environment.” COP10, Decision X37, para 16. (2010)
Last October, the CBD reaffirmed:
"Recognizing the development of technologies associated with synthetic life, cells or genomes, and the scientific uncertainties of their potential impact on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, urges Parties and invites other Governments to take a precautionary approach, in accordance with the preamble of the Convention and with Article 14, when addressing threats of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity posed by organisms, components and products resulting from synthetic biology." COP11 Decision XI, Para 4 (2012).
The CBD is now preparing a study in order to advise further international response.
In 2009, President Obama's Commission on Bioethical Issues investigated the matter of synthetic biology and raised significant concerns about environmental release of synthetic organisms noting that existing biosafety legislation for transgenic species may be insufficient for field release of synthetic organisms and that new risk assessment may be required. The Commission pointed out:
“At this early stage of development, the potential for harm through the inadvertent environmental release of organisms or other bioactive materials produced by synthetic biology requires safeguards and monitoring...Currently, the behavior of synthetic biological systems remains unpredictable. Function cannot typically be accurately predicted based on DNA sequence alone or by the shape and other characteristics of the proteins and the biological systems for which it codes. Also unknown is how synthetic biological systems will evolve. In most cases, biological systems that have been engineered by scientists quickly revert to ʻwild typeʼ (i.e., evolve to lose their engineered function rather than gain a new one). Although this notion may be reassuring, it does not rule out the possibility that systems might evolve in unpredictable and harmful ways, particularly if released outside the laboratory.” – From ʻNew Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologiesʼ – report of The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (2010)
The insurance industry raised similar concerns:
“Synthetic organisms may infect or displace natural ones: they may find a new niche and become hard to eradicate. The future is uncertain and just because something hasn't happened yet does not mean it cannot happen.” – From Lloyds
Emerging Risks Team Report, Synthetic Biology: Influencing Development And 116 civil society groups have called for a moratorium on any release of
"Governmental bodies, international organizations and relevant parties must immediately implement strong precautionary and comprehensive oversight mechanisms enacting, incorporating and internalizing these basic principles. Until that time, there must be a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms and their products to prevent direct or indirect harm to people and the environment." – From The Principles for The Oversight of Synthetic Biology.
More generally, synthetic biology has been the subject of intense concern for a host of risks ranging from the potential to create new pathogens and bioweapons to the detrimental impacts on the livelihoods of poor farmers in the developing world.
Despite these risks, synthetic biology remains largely unregulated in the United States. No laws have yet been framed to directly address synthetic biology and federal agencies instead are currently relying on antiquated laws written before the advent of biotechnology to regulate the new techniques. For example, the US Department of Agriculture regulates genetically engineered crops through plant pest laws and appears to have advised you that they will do the same with your synthetically engineered organisms. While it may be true, based on disturbing precedents, that you can evade regulation or oversight for your proposed bioluminescent organism, this should not be interpreted as proof of safety. It would be clearly in the public interest that a project such as this is first evaluated by an independent and legislated process for considering biosafety and other risks.
We find it extremely troubling that you are planning to take advantage of this loop-hole in outdated US regulations in order to facilitate the distribution of hundreds of thousands of novel synthetic organisms for mass plantings across the country without evaluation, oversight, monitoring or liability provisions in place. In doing so you are setting a dangerous precedent for future uncontrolled and unregulated releases of synthetic organisms. That is not responsible behavior.
We have written to both Kickstarter and the USDA APHIS to request that they take action to stop this project of distributing seeds and plant matter from moving ahead.
In light of the ecological risks and the controversial and experimental nature of synthetic biology, we respectfully ask you to reconsider this project and to inform backers expecting to receive engineered seed in the mail that the governance of synthetic biology is not sufficiently advanced to allow your project to responsibly
continue. If your Kickstarter backers are still interested in supporting a more genuinely sustainable lighting project they could, for example, be encouraged to fund any one of a number of Kickstarter solar power projects such as the Folding USB Solar Cell: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/browndoggadgets/folding- usb-solar-cell
Jim Thomas ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) Montreal, Canada
Eric Hoffman Friends of the Earth US. Washington DC
Cc Andrew Hessell, George Church