Extreme Genetic Engineering is here: man-made DNA

In a paper published today in the journal Science, the J. Craig Venter
Institute and Synthetic Genomics Inc announced the laboratory creation
of the world’s first self-reproducing organism whose entire genome was
built from scratch by a machine. Synthetic biology refers to the
construction of novel life-forms using synthetic DNA made from off-the-
shelf chemicals – a form of “extreme genetic engineering”.

ETC Group News Release 20 May 2010 www.etcgroup.org

Synthia is Alive and Breeding: Panacea or Pandora’s Box?

As Craig Venter announces lab-made life, ETC Group calls for Global
Moratorium on Synthetic Biology.

In a paper published today in the journal Science, the J. Craig Venter
Institute and Synthetic Genomics Inc announced the laboratory creation
of the world’s first self-reproducing organism whose entire genome was
built from scratch by a machine.(1) The construction of this synthetic
organism, anticipated and dubbed “Synthia” by the ETC Group three
years ago, will stir a firestorm of controversy over the ethics of
building artificial life and the implications of the largely unknown
field of synthetic biology.

Panacea, or?? According to today’s publication, “Synthia” could be a
boon to second-generation agrofuels making it ‘theoretically’
possible to feed people and cars simultaneously. The article further
suggests that Synthia, or synthetic biology, could help clean up the
environment, save us from climate change, and address the food crisis.
“Synthia is not a one-stop-shop for all our societal woes,” disputes
Pat Mooney, Executive Director of ETC Group, an international
technology watchdog based in Canada. “It is much more likely to cause
a whole new set of problems governments and society are ill-prepared
to address.”

“Pandora’s Box? This is the quintessential Pandora’s box moment –
like the splitting of the atom or the cloning of Dolly the sheep. We
will all have to deal with the fall-out from this alarming
experiment,” comments Jim Thomas of the ETC Group. “Synthetic biology
is a high-risk profit-driven field, building organisms out of parts
that are still poorly understood.(2) We know that lab-created life-
forms can escape, become biological weapons, and that their use
threatens existing natural biodiversity. Most worrying of all, Craig
Venter is handing this powerful technology to the world’s most
irresponsible and environmentally damaging industry by partnering with
the likes of BP and Exxon to hasten the commercialization of synthetic

Synthetic biology refers to the construction of novel life-forms using
synthetic DNA made from off-the-shelf chemicals – a form of “extreme
genetic engineering”. The team behind today’s announcement, led by
controversial scientist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, is associated
with a private company, Synthetic Genomics Inc, bankrolled by the US
government and energy behemoths BP and Exxon. Synthetic Genomics
recently announced a $600 million research and investment deal with
Exxon Mobil in addition to a 2007 investment from BP for an
undisclosed amount. Venter, who led the private sector part of the
human genome project ten years ago, has already applied for patents
related to Synthia’s technology.(4)

Although high-profile backers of synthetic biology now occupy key
positions in the US Obama administration(5) there still remains no
proper national or international oversight of new high-risk,
technologies that carry vast implications for humanity and the natural
world. In 2006, ETC Group joined with other organizations to demand
the formal, open and inclusive oversight of synthetic biology(6) and
have since called for a global halt on research pending the
development of global regulations. ETC Group has reiterated that call
at a scientific meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological
Diversity in Nairobi attended by more than 100 governments.(7)

Pandemonium?  The lack of global rules governing the field also
concerns many governments,
illustrated by the biodiversity talks in
Nairobi.  Mundita Lim of the Philippines delegation to the CBD
expressed her country’s concerns “about the serious potential impacts
of synthetic biology on biodiversity… we believe that there should
be no field release of synthetic life, cell or genome into the
environment until thorough scientific assessments have been conducted
in a transparent, open and participatory process involving all
Parties, indigenous and local communities that will all be potentially
affected by these synthetic life forms with unknown consequences on
biodiversity, the environment and livelihoods.” Today’s announcement
will give new urgency to the debate on synthetic biology and provide a
dramatic example of the need for rigorous oversight over new
technologies before their environmental or commercial release is

1) Science, 20 May 2010, “Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a
Chemically Synthesized Genome,” by D. Gibson; J.I. Glass; C. Lartigue;
V.N. Noskov; R.-Y. Chuang; M.A. Algire; M.G. Montague; L. Ma; M.M.
Moodie; C. Merryman; S. Vashee; R. Krishnakumar; N. Assad-Garcia; C.
Andrews-Pfannkoch; E.A. Denisova; L. Young; Z.-Q. Qi; T.H. Segall-
Shapiro; C.H. Calvey; P.P. Parmar; J.C. Venter at J. Craig Venter
Institute in Rockville, MD; G.A. Benders; C.A. Hutchinson III; H.O.
Smith; J.C. Venter at J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, CA.  The
paper acknowledges ‘generous funding’ from Synthetic Genomics Inc for
this work, that three of the leaders of the scientific team hold
executive positions at Synthetic Genomics Inc and that the J Craig
Venter Institute itself holds stock in Synthetic Genomics Inc.

2) For a graphic overview of the investors behind Synthetic Genomics,
Inc, see ETC Group’s 2007 Poster “The Men & Money Behind Synthia.”
available here: http://www.etcgroup.org/en/node/4797

3) Some details of Synthetic Genomics deal with BP are available at http://www.syntheticgenomics.com/media/bpfaq.html
and reporting of their deal with Exxon Mobil is available at http://nyti.ms/sf5A6

4) ETC Group News Release, 7 June 2007, “Patenting Pandora?s Bug,
Goodbye, Dolly…Hello, Synthia! J. Craig Venter Institute Seeks
Monopoly Patents on the World’s First-Ever Human-Made Life Form”
online at http://www.etcgroup.org/en/node/631

5) US Energy secretary Steven Chu was feted by press as “The Secretary
of Synthetic Biology” when he was named to office last year (see http://bit.ly/9pMDp8) , reflecting his previous role as head of Lawrence Berkeley National
Lab where he oversaw a $600 million dollar investment by BP in the
university’s synthetic biology labs. On the other side of that deal
was BP chief scientist Steve Koonin, now Undersecretary for Science in
the DOE. Koonin reportedly spearheaded BP’s investment in Synthetic
Genomics Inc.

6) Open Letter on Synthetic Biology from Civil Society, May 2006: http://www.etcgroup.org/en/materials/publications.html?pub_id=11

7) ETC Group currently has three staff members in Nairobi at the
meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and
Technological Advice to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity
(SBSTTA 14). The topic of synthetic biology is under discussion at
SBSTTA 14 under an item concerning the biodiversity risks of next
generation biofuels.

Notes to Editors:
ETC Group is an international civil society organization based in
Ottawa, Canada. We conduct research, education and advocacy on issues
related to the social and economic impacts of new technologies on
marginalized peoples – especially in the global South. We look at
issues from a human rights perspective but also address global
governance and corporate concentration. All ETC Group publications are
available free of charge on our website: www.etcgroup.org

ETC Group has been monitoring developments in synthetic biology for
the past five years and has pioneered civil society activism around
the field. In 2006 we joined dozens of other civil society
organizations to protest plans for voluntary governance of synthetic
biology. In 2007 we released “Extreme Genetic Engineering” the first
ever critical introduction to the field (available at http://www.etcgroup.org/en/node/602). We also exposed plans by J. Craig Venter and his colleagues to
patent their planned synthetic organism, which we dubbed ‘Synthia’. A
full archive of ETC Group’s writings, comments and press releases on
the topic of Synthetic Biology is available at http://www.etcgroup.org/en/issues/synthetic_biology
and video, audio and graphic resources on the topic are available at http://www.etcgroup.org/en/materials/video_audio_library

ETC Group has three staff members in Nairobi at the meeting of the
Scientific Body to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (SBSTTA
14). The topics currently under discussion at SBSTTA include the
biodiversity risks of next generation biofuels and new and emerging
threats to biodiversity.

For more information and background:

To arrange interviews with Pat Mooney or Jim Thomas, please contact
Diana Bronson.

Diana Bronson – diana@etcgroup.org; phone +1 514 273 6661 cell: 514
629 9236

Pat Mooney – etc@etcgroup.org  phone +1 613 241 2267 extension 23

Jim Thomas –  jim@etcgroup.org phone +1 514 273 9994  cell: 514 516 5759

In Nairobi, Kenya:

English interviews:

Neth Dano, neth@etcgroup.org cell & SMS + 63 917 532 9369; Nairobi:
+254 712 605 622

Spanish interviews:

Silvia Ribeiro, silvia@etcgroup.org cell & SMS +52 1 55 2653 3330;
Nairobi cell: +254 712 601 660

French interviews:

Molly Kane, molly@etcgroup.org cell & SMS: + 1-613-797 6421; Nairobi:
+ 254 712 600 644

Twitter – ETC Group will be putting out occasional updates on this
news story on Twitter using the hashtag #SYNTHIA -we encourage other
to use the same tag.
Join us on Facebook

Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator
Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN)

Collaborative Campaigning for Food Sovereignty and Environmental Justice
431 Gilmour Street, Second Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K2P 0R5
Phone: 613 241 2267 ext.6
Fax: 613 241 2506

Take action to Stop “Enviropig”: No GM Animals http://www.cban.ca/enviropig
Donate Today http://www.cban.ca/donate
Subscribe to the CBAN News and Action Listserve http://www.cban.ca/About/CBAN-e-News

3 responses to “Extreme Genetic Engineering is here: man-made DNA

  1. You’ve done it again. Incredible post.

  2. You have done it once again! Amazing read.

  3. If only more people would read this!

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