A new report by the ETC Group concludes that the social, environmental and bio-weapons threats of synthetic biology surpass the possible dangers and abuses of biotech. The full text of the 70-page report, Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology, is available for downloading free-of-charge on the ETC Group website.
"Genetic engineering is passé," said Pat Mooney, Executive Director of ETC Group. "Today, scientists aren't just mapping genomes and manipulating genes, they're building life from scratch - and they're doing it in the absence of societal debate and regulatory oversight," said Mooney.
Synbio - dubbed "genetic engineering on steroids" - is inspired by the convergence of nano-scale biology, computing and engineering. Using a laptop computer, published gene sequence information and mail-order synthetic DNA, just about anyone has the potential to construct genes or entire genomes from scratch (including those of lethal pathogens). Scientists predict that within 2-5 years it will be possible to synthesise any virus; the first de novo bacterium will make its debut in 2007; in 5-10 years simple bacterial genomes will be synthesised routinely and it will become no big deal to cobble together a designer genome, insert it into an empty bacterial cell and - voilà - give birth to a living, self-replicating organism. Other synthetic biologists hope to reconfigure the genetic pathways of existing organisms to perform new functions - such as manufacturing high-value drugs or chemicals.