The ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration) has released a free 70-page report on the threats of "synthetic biology." From the press release:
A new report by the ETC Group concludes that the social, environmental and bio-weapons threats of synthetic biology surpass the possible dangers and abuses of biotech. […]
"Genetic engineering is passe," said Pat Mooney, Executive Director of ETC Group. "Today, scientists aren’t just mapping genomes and manipulating genes, they’re building life from scratch – and they’re doing it in the absence of societal debate and regulatory oversight," said Mooney.
Synbio – dubbed "genetic engineering on
steroids" – is inspired by the convergence of nano-scale biology,
computing and engineering. Using a laptop computer, published gene
sequence information and mail-order synthetic DNA, just about anyone
has the potential to construct genes or entire genomes from scratch
(including those of lethal pathogens). Scientists predict that within
2-5 years it will be possible to synthesise any virus; the first de novo
bacterium will make its debut in 2007; in 5-10 years simple bacterial
genomes will be synthesised routinely and it will become no big deal to
cobble together a designer genome, insert it into an empty bacterial
cell and – voilà – give birth to a living, self-replicating organism.
Other synthetic biologists hope to reconfigure the genetic pathways of
existing organisms to perform new functions – such as manufacturing
high-value drugs or chemicals.
A clutch of entrepreneurial scientists, including the gene maverick J.
Craig Venter, is setting up synthetic biology companies backed by
government funding and venture capital. They aim to commercialise new
biological parts, devices and systems that don’t exist in the natural
world – some of which are designed for environmental release. Advocates
insist that synthetic biology is the key to cheap biofuels, a cure for
malaria, and climate change remediation – media-friendly goals that aim
to mollify public concerns about a dangerous and controversial
technology. Ultimately synthetic biology means cheaper and widely
accessible tools to build bioweapons, virulent pathogens and artificial
organisms that could pose grave threats to people and the planet. The
danger is not just bio-terror, but "bio-error," warns ETC Group.
Link: ETC Group – Publications – Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology.
There’s some interesting discussion happening at Salon between Salon columnist Andrew Leonard, ETC Group, and MIT assistant professor of synthetic biology Drew Endy. The latest post is here (update: and in the comments I believe I’m called both a Luddite and evil — nice!).
The ETC Group is based in Canada and was one of many parties behind an open letter calling for public debate on synthetic biology, issued last May to coincide with the Synthetic Biology 2.0 symposium — see previous post.
Their site has lots of interesting reading material. They recently had a competition to design a hazard symbol for nanotechnology (the final judging will take place soon).