The need to oppose unchecked synthetic/xenobiology at upcoming CBD negotiations

By Maggie Zhou

Just while humanity is disrupting the foundation of marine food webs by affecting the abundance, variety, and even the livability of phytoplanktons and pteropods alike, synthetic biologists are altering the genetic alphabet of life itself, among other things, and the scientific academies see only rosy pictures of exciting adventure and applications, while short on sober caution (other than paying lip service to the need for “regulations/self-governance”).  The same flawed paradigm of “presumed safe until proven harmful” that has led us to today’s pollution laden planet is being applied to synbio organisms, and GMOs are presented as victimized by environmentalists, exemplifying the need for strong PR investment for the synbio field from the start, to win over the public.
IAP, the international network of Science Academies has recently published a position statement in Nature, which basically sets out the Syn Bio industry’s line going into the negotiations at UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity meetings next month. It is available online here in several languages: http://interacademies.net/10878/Scientific_Opportunities_and_Good_Governance.aspx
IAP’s co-chair, Volker ter Meulen, loudly promotes synbio’s cause in Nature, which devoted a special issue to the field:
But of course, despite such champions mouthing the word “precaution”, caution is the farthest thing from the minds of software engineers designing and 3-D printing viruses and other synthetic life:
Here is about the recent study adding letters to DNA’s alphabet:
A short article on this is here:
Technology watchdog the ETC Group’s Jim Thomas has this to say (emphasis added):
“…… breakthroughs like this raise huge ethical, legal, regulatory etc questions in the longer term and that governments right now should be ashamed how far behind they are: While synthetic biologists invent new ways to monkey around with the fundamentals of life, governments haven’t even been able to  cobble together  the basics of oversight, assessment or regulation for this surging broad new field.”
“(The alphabet altering work) is part of the emerging field of xenobiology and xenobiology as a whole (including this sort of work) is being actively promoted as a potential way to overcome biosafety problems in Synthetic Biology. The idea is that because these alternative genetic alphabets (called orthogonal genetic systems) work differently from natural DNA they can’t cross contaminate and so you get around the problems of gene flow etc – basically creating biological containmnet of  a genetic sort. This is entirely speculative and its important to point out that there is no proof of the inherent biosafety of these systems. Indeed they are so novel as genetic systems that its hard to know what biosafety issues they may give rise to in themselves.”
“(In June) 193 governments meeting under the Convention on Biological Diversity will for the first time discuss international oversight of Synthetic Biology.  Xenobiology (including the topic of alternative genetic alphabets) is explicitly part of the discussion. In our view governments now need to state loud and clear that this technology is not ready for prime time, should be kept locked in the lab and a freeze put on the commercialization and release of synthetically modified organisms in general until transparent and precautionary governance arrangements are worked out.”
Last but not least, synthetic biology is also a major area of focus of the U.S. military – that, in itself, should make one wary.

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