Lablife 3.0 - Blogging the Synthusiasts

Some of us from ETC are in Zurich for the next few days observing what happens when you cram several hundred synthetic biologists and industrialists into a conference room -- the evolution of a new industrial species? These 'Synthusiasts' are now into their third annual international congress, Synthetic Biology 3.0, each conference named like a software update. Unlike software updates however it's not clear they've really ironed out the major bugs in the intervening years. As SynBio 3.0 gets underway let's review the major faults in Synthetic Biology 2.0. (Berkely California 2006) and consider the prospects for this new release.

Governance: At Syn Bio 2.0, the synthusiasts tried to perform a complicated piece of defensive policy-posturing, proposing a self-governance framework of the field to ward off regulatory rumblings. That move was condemned by 38 civil society groups in an open letter and the plans were quietly dropped. Or so it seemed. This year the self-governance rhetoric is back, recycled and repackaged in a Nature Biotechnology article. 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 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. We really disagree.

Ownership and control: Despite the good karma coming out of Berkeley in support of 'open source synbio,' the hard reality going into Zurich reflects the same monopoly-grabbing gameplan that made Monsanto and Microsoft both rich and reviled. A few weeks ago, ETC unearthed a patent by the J. Craig Venter Institute on the first-ever synthetic organism. We hope to hear on Monday from the Institute's Hamilton Smith just how close to fruition Venter's bug really is, but Venter makes no bones about his bid to turn Synthetic Genomics, Inc. into the 'Microbesoft' of this new field. He predicts his synthetic organism (we suggested he call it Synthia) could be a trillion-dollar organism and the Institute promises big licensing deals and partnerships with major transnational companies (see 'money' below). In the most recent edition of Business Week, Venter gives tantalizing hints that Synthia's birth announcement may already be in the mail.

Accessibility: Last year ETC Group was turned away from Syn Bio 2.0 and civil society groups noted that the synthusiasts were talking about important issues like governance only among like-minded souls. Despite a promise last year that the synthusiast community would engage with wider stakeholders, access to the conference this year required acceptance of a scientific abstract by a science panel. Once again there are no civil society voices on the conference agenda -- it's a familiar mix of industrialists, academics and scientist-entrepeuners. No environmental or consumer groups, no social justice or human rights advocates, no farmers, no trade unionists, no indigenous or Southern representation. ETC Group will get 5 minutes to respond to academic ethicists on Monday afternoon -- that's the extent of engagement of civil society. Otherwise it appears to be the same closed shop.

Money: At Syn Bio 2.0 bloggers noted a new flavour of money at the conference. We expect that aroma to be even stronger here in Zurich. In the last year several new SynBio companies have received substantial injections of cash -- Amyris Biotech, Codon Devices, LS9, Synthetic Genomics. About seventy gene foundries now make up the Syn Bio sector represented by a new trade body ICPS (see above). Big players such as Cargill, DuPont and Microsoft have put money into Synbio - most notably visible is oil company BP who has inked a deal with Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics, reportedly boosting the value of his company to 300 million dollars. BP are also in the process of buying up Berkeley's synbio expertise and ex-head of BP's US fuels now heads up Amyris atBiotech.

Justice: Though Synbio 2.0 issued a statement saying they wanted to support ongoing discussions about the biological justice implications of synthetic biology, you wouldn't know it from this agenda.

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