May 22, 2006

Backgrounder: Open Letter on Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology - Global Societal Review Urgent!

Synthetic biology (the attempt to create artificial living organisms) should be self-regulated say scientists at Berkeley assembly. Civil Society organizations say "No!"

"If biologists are indeed on the threshold of synthesizing new life forms, the scope for abuse or inadvertent disaster could be huge." Nature, October 2004

Scientists working at the interface of engineering and biology - in the new field of "synthetic biology" - worry that public distrust of biotechnology could impede their research or draw attention to regulatory chasms. Synthetic biologists are trying to design and construct artificial living systems to perform specific tasks, such as producing pharmaceutical compounds or energy. In October 2004, the journal Nature warned, "if biologists are indeed on the threshold of synthesizing new life forms, the scope for abuse or inadvertent disaster could be huge." An editorial in that same issue suggested that there may be a need for an "Asilomar"-type conference on synthetic biology. In light of these concerns, scientists gathering at "Synthetic Biology 2.0" (May 20-22, 2006) at the University of California-Berkeley hope to make "significant progress" toward a "code of ethics and standards." Their actions are intended to project the message that the synthetic biologists are being pro-active and capable of governing themselves as a "community." In their view, self-governance is the best way forward to safely reap the benefits (both societal and financial) of synthetic biology. Civil Society organizations disagree.

"There are two ways of dealing with dangerous technologies," says Tom Knight, a leading figure in synthetic biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "One is to keep the technology secret. The other one is do it faster and better than everyone else. My view is that we have absolutely no choice but to do the latter." - New Scientist, 18th May 2006

What is synthetic biology? The products of synthetic biology could be at least one order of magnitude more potent and invasive than those from conventional biotechnology. Barely six years old, synthetic biology attempts to construct unique and novel organisms - from the bottom up. Unlike today's genetic engineering which "cuts and pastes" existing genes between species, synthetic biology rewrites the code of life to create new DNA modules programmed to self-assemble with other modules to create designer organisms (mostly viruses and bacteria) capable of functions normally associated with mechanical production lines. There are already many synthetic biology companies receiving funding from government, military and private interests. At least 39 gene synthesis companies are manufacturing artificial DNA and parts of DNA (oligonucleotides). Most of the US-based work is in the Boston area (where the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is located), around Berkeley, California and at Craig Venter's Institute for Genomic Research in Maryland.

Much of synthetic biology is still 'proof of principle' research that involves gimmicks such as microbes blinking in coordinated rhythm or light-sensitive bacteria that can capture a photographic image. Some of the work, however, comes with breathtaking implications for biodiversity and life. Researchers in California and Florida, for example, have taken standard four-letter DNA (A,C,G,T) and built on a fifth and then a sixth letter- making it theoretically possible to create species of unbelievable complexity.

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