Yesterday's announcement that biotech entrepreneur Craig Venter is one step closer to constructing a self-replicating artificial life form should be a wake-up call. Venter's move to construct a synthetic bacterial species paves the way for the deliberate or accidental creation of pathogens of unprecedented virulence. Currently there are no laws or treaties, and few regulations, to bring this set of powerful new biotechnologies under responsible social oversight.
In 1975 scientists gathered at an emergency meeting in Asilomar, California to reluctantly impose a voluntary, short-term moratorium on their own research in the then-new field of genetic engineering. Now, 32 years later, scientists promoting the new field of synthetic biology appear far less willing to abide by even minimal precautionary values.
In March 2006 synthetic biologists at the "SynBio 2.0" conference in Berkeley, California downplayed the risks that synthetic biology poses, and resisted calls for moratoria or any effective public oversight. Those sentiments have been reinforced at the "SynBio 3.0" conference being held this week in Zurich, Switzerland.
The profound dangers of synthetic biology have been widely noted. As early as 2003, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) warned [PDF] that synthetic biology could be used to produce biological agents whose effects "could be worse than any disease known to man." A leading MIT synthetic biologist has acknowledged [PDF] that synthetic biology might allow people with a high school biology education to create "a pathogen that could cause millions of deaths."
Nonetheless, the only safeguards that most synthetic biologists appear willing to accept are a series of "self-regulatory" procedures that provide little or no protection. Their proposals for self-regulation are more public relations than a serious approach to social oversight.
For the past two decades the links between the bioscience research community and the commercial biotechnology industry have become increasingly strong. Commercial motives have been present at the creation, so to speak, of synthetic biology. Earlier this month it was disclosed that Venter had applied for both US and international patents on his proposed synthetic bacterium. He has declared his hope that it will be the world's first "trillion dollar organism."
Organizations including the ETC Group, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have already begun to educate and activate [PDF] key constituencies around the immense risks posed by synthetic biology. With researchers and biotech entrepreneurs refusing to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, it's up to civil society, national governments and international governing bodies to ensure that biotechnology is developed in ways that enhance rather than endanger the well-being of the human community and all life on earth.
ETC Group: Extreme Genetic Engineering
Civil Society Sign-On Letter [PDF]
Richard Hayes, "Our Biopolitical Future: Four Scenarios," WorldWatch [PDF]