Synthetic biology: Controls haven’t been established

This post comes from Richard Brenneman at Eats, Shoots ‘n Leaves. — GJEP 

by Richard Brenneman

First, a warning about synthetic biology from historian Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, which includes mentions of Jay Keasling [previously], the UC Berkeley bioengineer who launched Amyris [previously] with money from Bill Gates to develop a microbe to produce an antimalaria drugl, then repurposed the company as a for-profit would-be agrofuel business. Keasling has since left Amyris to head the Department of Energy-funded Joint BioEnergy Institute, which is set to relocate to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s billion-dollar-plus corporate/academic bioengineering campus planned for the nearby Richmond shoreline:

In light of Thomas’s prescient warning, consider the following story, published yesterday, from Meredith Wadman of Nature News Blog:

More than one report from an august body of experts has gathered dust in Washington, D.C.  But the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a public policy think tank based in the U.S. capital, today is setting out to make sure that does not happen when the subject is synthetic biology.

The center today launched a “scorecard”  that will monitor the progress made on 18 recommendations proposed in December, 2010 by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

That report,  New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies , was requested by President Barack Obama in May of 2010, after J. Craig Venter and colleagues published the first synthetic bacterial genome.

The Wilson center’s new scorecard makes it clear that progress implementing the commission’s proposals – several of which are on an 18-month timeline– has been middling, if that.  For instance, the scorecard reports “no activities identified” in the Executive Office of the President on the first recommendation: that the US government compile a comprehensive inventory of its current funding for synthetic biology research, complete it and publish it by June, 2012.

“They said they haven’t been able to work on it,” David Rejeski, director of the Wilson Centers’ Synthetic Biology Project, told Nature. “We couldn’t find any evidence that there was any activity going on.”

Read the rest.

UC Berkeley’s other major bioengineering project with global implications is the Energy Biosciences Institute [previously], funded by a $500 million grant from BP to develop microbes and crops to produce “next generation” synthetic fuels derived from crops planted on vast Third World plantations.

EBI scientists bitterly opposed California legislation requiring evaluations of so-called indirect land use effects caused by agrofuels, effects including loss of habitat and livelihoods as well as production of additional carbon emissions as a result of forest- and grassland-clearing.

And it was only after significant protests by a large minority of faculty that EBI even included research of impacts on local populations impacted by their ambitious program.

In light of what we’ve seen here in Berkeley, Thomas’s warnings seem comparatively modest.

This post comes from Richard Brenneman at Eats, Shoots ‘n Leaves

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