July 21, 2004

Rocking the Boat: J. Craig Venter's Microbial Collecting Expedition Under Fire in Latin America

Civil society organizations (CSOs) and peoples’ movements convening at the first Americas Social Forum in Quito, Ecuador, July 25-30 2004, are protesting J. Craig Venter’s US-government funded ocean expedition to collect and sequence microbial diversity from around the globe. Exotic microbes are the raw materials for creating new energy sources and even new life forms.

"Venter’s microbe-hunting expedition raises serious unanswered questions about sovereignty over genetic resources and resource privatization through patenting," says Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group who will attend the Social Forum. "Will the world’s microbes being collected by Venter become the raw ingredients for his research on the creation of new life forms? What role will Venter’s functionalized life forms play in nanobiotechnology, where scientists are merging living and non-living materials to create human-directed machines? The worst-case scenario is that these new life forms will form the templates for deadly bioweapons."

Operating from Venter’s 90-ft. yacht, the Sorcerer II, researchers collect samples approximately every 200 miles. Researchers have already collected marine and soil samples in Bermuda, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Chile and Ecuador’s famous Galapagos Islands – among other sites. The Sorcerer II left the Galapagos in March for French Polynesia and will continue circumnavigating the globe by way of the South Pacific’s New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar, around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and then up to the mouth of the Amazon River. The voyage will end with a trek through the Caribbean and back to the eastern coast of the US.

The flamboyant biologist, J. Craig Venter, is no stranger to controversy. Venter is best known for his commercial quest to sequence the human genome in just three years, his audacious patents on human gene sequences, and, more recently, his goal to construct a novel, artificial life form in the laboratory – an undertaking he abandoned in 1999 because of potential abuses by bioterrorists. Since 2002, with a green light from a panel of bioethicists, Venter’s non-profit Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA) has received over $12 million dollars from the "Genomes to Life" program of the US Department of Energy to create new life forms in the laboratory. Venter’s goal is "to direct the biology of the first man-made species" which he believes will play a major role in bio-remediation, the production of chemicals and new pharmaceuticals. Last year, Venter and Nobel Laureate Hamilton Smith took just 14 days to assemble a known bacteriophage consisting of 5,386 base pairs of synthetically produced, commercially available DNA. IBEA asserts that the synthesis "poses no health or ethical concerns."

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