Biotech: creating new life forms


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

Rachel's Democracy & Health News #895, February 22, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: A new report from the ETC Group in Canada highlights the
power of new genetic engineering techniques that are capable of creating new 
forms of life never seen on Earth before.]

By Tim Montague

In the past 5 years, the science of genetic engineering has made giant strides. 
Starting from scratch using lifeless chemicals, scientists are now able to 
create viruses, such as the polio virus. Technically, viruses are not "alive" 
because they require cells to survive. But soon -- perhaps some time this year 
-- scientists expect to create bacteria, which are definitely alive. From there,
it will be a short step to manufacturing new forms of life that have never 
existed on Earth before. This startling new enterprise is called "synthetic 


Life begins as lifeless chemicals, called nucleotides. You can buy them off the 
shelf. Under some circumstances, these can combine into complicated chains to 
create DNA molecules. Long strands of DNA form genes, and genes give rise to 
proteins and eventually to cells and viruses. Cells metabolize, adapt to their 
environment, and reproduce themselves using the information packed away in their
DNA -- thus fulfilling the definition of living things. The nucleotides are just
ordinary lifeless chemicals, but by the time they combine into cells they have 
become the stuff of life itself.

Scientists have spent 300 years working backward from cells, trying to discover 
how all this works. Along the way they learned that genes can give creatures 
particular characteristics. Starting 30 years ago they began snipping genes from
one creature and inserting them into a different creature, hoping to give the 
recipient some new characteristic that humans would find valuable. For example, 
trout can tolerate cold water, so perhaps a gene from a trout inserted into a 
tomato will help the tomato tolerate cold weather. This has become known as 
"gene splicing" or "genetic engineering."

All this activity can be described as "reading" the genetic code. But now 
scientists know enough to begin "writing" their own genetic code -- putting 
together chains of nucleotides into chunks of DNA, and pasting these together to
create living things.

In 2002 a team of scientists at the State University of New York at Stony Brook 
took mail-ordered pieces of synthetic, lifeless DNA and pasted them together to 
create a polio virus -- a feat that took two years of hard work. It was the 
first time humans had ever created a functioning organism from scratch. Since 
then, things have speeded up.

In 2003 a team led by Craig Venter produced a second synthetic virus from 
scratch -- and they did it in 14 days. "Scientists predict that within 2-5 years
it will be possible to synthesise any virus; the first de novo [meaning, 
"starting from scratch"] bacterium will make its debut in 2007," says a new 
report 1 Mbyte PDF from the ETC Group in Canada. (pg. 1) Bacteria are definitely
alive, so the creation of life from scratch, starting with simple chemicals, is 
upon us.

In 2005, researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and the U.S. 
Centers of Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta announced that "They had resurrected
the lethal [1918 flu] virus. They published details of the completed genome 
sequencing in Nature and details of the virus recreation in Science." (p. 24) 
The flu virus that swept the world in 1918 was especially adept at transmitting 
itself from one person to the next, and it was especially deadly, killing 
somewhere between 20 million and 50 million humans. Reconstructing the virus 
using gene-splicing techniques may help us avoid another pandemic like that of 
1918 -- or it may give some "genetic hacker" an idea for creating mischief on a 
monumental scale.

Obviously the ability to create the polio virus, or the 1918 flu virus, is an 
extraordinary scientific accomplishment, but freighted with dark possibilities.

In response to recreation of the 1918 virus, technology gurus Bill Joy and Ray 
Kurzweil told the New York Times, "This is extremely foolish, the genome [of the
1918 flu virus] is essentially the design of a weapon of mass destruction. No 
responsible scientist would advocate publishing precise designs for an atomic 
bomb... revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous."(p. 24)

Despite such grim warnings, many new start-up firms are competing to find ways 
to profit from these new techniques.

Craig Venter -- the golden boy of synthetic biology -- and hundreds of other 
scientists are now trolling the depths of the oceans, the canopies of jungles 
and the far corners of earth to catalog and patent life's genetic heritage. A 
new report from the ETC Group titled "Extreme Genetic Engineering" 1 Mbyte PDF 
says, "Venter claims that his expedition has discovered 3,995 new gene families 
not previously known, and 6-10 million new genes -- which he describes as 
'design components' of the future."(p. 14)

The gold rush is on. Synthetic biology -- heralded as the next "big thing" to 
fuel economic growth -- is genetic engineering on steroids. Cataloging our 
genetic heritage is just the beginning. Armed with desktop synthetic biology 
machines, scientists can now create DNA on demand, freely combining the best or 
worst characteristics of any known organism and inventing completely new life 

This is all very exciting for scientists and their financial backers who dream 
of making huge profits. "They hold growing patent portfolios and foresee 
industrial products for uses as diverse as energy production, climate change 
remediation, toxic cleanup, textiles and pharmaceutical production."(p.3) Huge 
sums of money are now pouring from private foundations, government programs and 
venture capital to invent new medical and chemical products.

As the synthetic biology industry hurtles into the future, civil society 
organizations are now asking if we shouldn't at least have widespread debate and
legally-binding regulation before we rush into this great unknown?

Evidence is accumulating that we really don't know how to control this new 
technology. For example, Greenpeace just released a report documenting the 
growing number of cases of unapproved GMO [genetically modified organisms] food 
crops showing up in regular food crops. GMO rice, corn, soy, cotton and other 
crops have now 'contaminated' the gene pools of their non-GMO cousins in 142 
different incidents since the introduction of GMO crops 12 years ago in 1996.

If we can't control the spread of GMO crops -- relatively large, visible 
organisms -- how will we control microscopic viruses and bacteria?

Scientists at Berkeley University backed by a $42.5 million grant from the Bill 
and Melinda Gates Foundation, are developing synthetic drugs to combat malaria. 
This work gives synthetic biology the blessing of major philanthropy -- but the 
eventual outcomes for society are unpredictable. The Berkeley team says it will 
create unlimited and cheap production of the previously scarce drug Artemisinin 
to treat malaria in the developing world.(p. 20)

Artemisinin is naturally produced by the wormwood (artemisia) plant which is 
widely cultivated in Africa and Asia. Tea made from the plant is used as a 
natural medicine to prevent and cure malaria. Although synthetic biology may 
eventually yield an affordable synthetic alternative, it will likely disrupt 
indigenous agriculture that provides a livelihood for thousands of small-scale 

And the ETC Group even questions whether the Berkeley work will produce a 
low-cost drug: "Pharmaceutical companies will accumulate control and power over 
the production process; artemisia producers will lose a source of income; and 
local production, extraction and (possibly) manufacturing of ACT [Artemisinin 
Combination Therapies] in regions where malaria is prevalent will shift to the 
main production sites of Western pharmaceutical companies."

The ETC Group report outlines six major areas where synthetic biology needs to 
be carefully watched and where it could undermine the public interest and 
local/regional economies.

** Biological weapons -- more dangerous, more stealthy

** Biofuels -- to replace petroleum with ethanol and other chemicals derived 
from genetically modified organisms -- instead of focusing on conservation and 

** Creating intellectual monopolies -- why not own the world? Companies are 
aiming to create new monopolies by patenting all manner of natural forms and 

** Conservation biology -- prevent and reverse extinction, thus introducing 
alien species into contemporary ecosystems

** New commodities -- rubber, silk, you name it; will they interfere with 
existing crops? Can we anticipate the problems they will create?

** Public health and safety -- trust us, we're experts. What will happen when 
new organisms enter ecosystems, evolve, and mutate?

The details of each are well worth reading (pgs. 23-48). The common theme is 
that corporate profits are the primary motivation for all of these innovations. 
When profit comes first, there is often little room for ethical and democratic 
exploration of better alternatives.

So what is an ostensibly-democratic society supposed to do? The ETC Group 
suggests, " keeping with the Precautionary Principle, synthetic microbes 
should be treated as dangerous until proven harmless. At a minimum, 
environmental release of de novo synthetic organisms should be prohibited until 
wide societal debate and strong governance are in place, and until health, 
environmental and socioeconomic implications are thoroughly considered."(p. 50)

The synthetic biology industry has made some soft proposals of self- governance,
as a preemptive measure. Most of these have focused on biological weapons. "One 
proposal was... to boycott gene synthesis companies that did not screen orders 
for dangerous pathogens, and the development of software that could check 
genetic code for sequences that could be used maliciously." And a second, "He 
[Stephen Maurer, a Berkeley attorney] also proposed a confidential hotline for 
synthetic biologists to check if their work, or the work of others, was 
ethically acceptable."

But even some synthetic biologists doubt that self-policing can work. Drew Endy 
of MIT -- a synthetic biology leader and advocate of 'open-source' biology -- 
said, "I expect that this technology will be misapplied, actively misapplied....
I don't think [these proposals] will have a significant impact on the misuse of 
this technology."(p. 47)

In May of 2006, the synthetic biology 2.0 conference was held in Berkeley 
California. When the ETC Group tried to register to attend the event, they were 
turned away because of "limited space." So they submitted an open letter signed 
by 38 civil society organizations calling on the synthetic biology industry to 
"participate in a process of open and democratic oversight of the 
technology."(p. 50)

"Scientists creating new life-forms cannot be allowed to act as judge and jury,"
explained Sue Mayer, director of GeneWatch. "The implications are too serious to
be left to well-meaning but self interested scientists. Public debate and 
policing is needed."(p. 47)

The ETC Group report makes the following recommendations:(p. 50)

** There must be a broad societal debate on synthetic biology's wider 
socioeconomic and ethical implications, including potential impacts on health, 
environment, human rights and security."

** Civil society should meet at national, regional and international levels to 
evaluate and plan a coordinated response to the emergence of synthetic biology 
in the context of wider, converging technologies.

** Governments should maintain zero tolerance for biowarfare agents, synthesised
or otherwise, and adopt strong legal measures and enforcement to prevent the 
synthesis of biowarfare agents.

** The building blocks of life must not be privatised: Despite earnest calls for
"open source biology," exclusive monopoly patents are now being won on the 
smallest parts of life -- on gene fragments, codons and even the molecules that 
make living organisms (i.e., novel amino acids and novel base pairs).

** To facilitate coordinated global action, an international body should be 
established to monitor and assess societal impacts of emerging technologies, 
including synthetic biology.

Can regulation work?

If society does create rules for the development of synthetic biology it should 
remember that, "scientists are ill-equipped by their training to grapple with 
the ethical and moral dimensions of their work. Scientists have no equivalent of
the Hippocratic Oath -- "First do no harm" -- that guides the behavior of 
physicians. The Hippocratic oath counsels restraint, humility, and caution. In 
science, on the other hand, wherever your curiosity takes you is the right place
to go, even if it takes you into "a darker bioweapons future."(Rachel's News 

Even when industry accepts regulation we must be wary. First, history tells us 
that government regulation translates mostly into government approval. 
Furthermore, new products are invented so fast that government can't keep up 
with the onslaught. And when someone is harmed and sues, manufacturers will use 
regulation as an excuse to evade responsibility: "The government approved this 
so I'm not liable."(Rachel's News #834)

In addition, regulation gives big firms unfair advantage over their smaller 
competitors. Complicated regulations require armies of lawyers and engineers -- 
"compliance specialists" -- who "do nothing but read the regulations and fill 
out the burdensome paperwork, bellyaching all the way to the bank."(Rachel's 
News #834)

Let us remember these words, from the ETC group's open letter to the 2006 
synthetic biology 2.0 meetings: "We believe that this potentially powerful 
technology is being developed without proper societal debate concerning 
socioeconomic, security, health, environmental and human rights implications. We
are alarmed that synthetic biologists meeting this weekend intend to vote on a 
scheme of voluntary self-regulation without consulting or involving broader 
social groups. We urge you to withdraw these self-governance proposals and 
participate in a process of open and inclusive oversight of this technology."

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