Genetically engineered food had not exactly been popular in the UK, with many people being worried about the risks. Quite apart from the dangers of cross-species gene transfer, some are concerned that the underlying aim is to enable suppliers to lock farmers into dependence on them. More generally, some see it as part of a wider claim that ‘technology can fix everything, don’t worry about impacts’.
Views like this are likely to shape reactions to the latest idea- genetically engineered energy crops. The back-story is that the first generation of biofuel crops has been widely criticised for being low yield, land hungry and undermining of food production. The second generation of non-food crops, it is claimed, will be better. But genetically, modified crops could, it’s said, be even better- with much higher yields, and more resistance to drought, pests and diseases.
In fact in a new report on ‘Next generation biofuels and synthetic biology’, the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD) says that the aim is to go beyond simple genetic modification ‘by splicing a few genes from one organism into another’ and on to designing ‘entirely new life forms with pre-selected functions, like the microbes which will digest trees and grasses and ferment them into biofuels, or the algae which will harvest solar energy to produce oil’.
Well actually that sounds interesting. So why not? FIELD offers some compelling arguments.
Minor genetic adjustments may not sound too horrific- it’s what nature does slowly and we do a bit faster via selective breeding. But FIELD quote the Royal Society explanation that ‘the synthetic biologist seeks to build a bespoke system (such as an organism) by re-designing an existing system or constructing one from scratch using parts taken from nature or specially designed. This approach can lead to organisms…with properties not found in nature.’
FIELD report that some synthetic biologists are designing ‘a biological shell which will express synthetic DNA as flexibly as a computer runs programmes. The shell is created by disabling the genes of an existing organism one at a time and removing those that can be removed without killing the organism’. Others seek to catalogue and assemble biological parts like Lego bricks. FIELD says ‘BioBricks, a leading effort of this type, is a registry of DNA sequences that each reliably perform a specific function. Each “brick” is designed to be compatible with the others.’ Still others aim to construct synthetic life forms entirely from scratch using DNA synthesisers, ‘the biological equivalent of word processors’.
FIELD notes that the world’s first self-replicating synthetic genome, announced by the J. Craig Venter Institute in May 2010, was constructed in this way. Venter described it as ‘the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.’ That certainly sounds worrying.
FIELD says ‘It is extremely difficult to anticipate the risks and harms of a new science like synthetic biology, and therefore of next generation [GM] biofuels. Traditionally, the risks of new genetically engineered organisms are assessed by comparison with their known relatives. Containment rules and risk mitigation strategies are then set based on the rules for the known relative. But synthetic biologists are capable of designing organisms with no relatives in nature’.
It accepts that ‘building “terminator genes” into synthetic organisms, or making them dependent on artificial substances, may decrease the likelihood of uncontrolled proliferation’, but asserts that ‘uncontrolled proliferation may occur despite best efforts at containment. Synthetic micro-organisms released into the environment, accidentally or intentionally, could share genes with other micro-organisms through horizontal gene transfer or evolve beyond their functionality. One hypothetical, worst-case scenario is a newly engineered type of high-yielding blue-green algae cultivated for biofuel production unintentionally leaking from outdoor ponds and out-competing native algal growth. A durable synthetic biology-derived organism might then spread to natural waterways, where it may thrive, displace other species, and rob the ecosystem of vital nutrients, with negative consequences for the environment.’
It goes on ‘Synthetic biology also presents new bio-security threats. DNA sequences and design software are available online and synthesised DNA is available by mail order. In 2002, a team of researches at the State University of New York demonstrated the potential threat by recreating the polio virus from sequences of DNA ordered by mail.’
It then outlines the current state of play on regulation, but warns that ‘there is little clarity on how synthetic biology is currently regulated under domestic and international law, and no clarity on how regulation should proceed’.
There are vast amounts of money potentially to be made from synthetic biology, and, given the rapidly developing field, those seeking to devise regulatory controls also face, in effect, a moving target. So perhaps it’s hardly surprising that regulation is problematic.
Worried? FIELD clearly is. So too are Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. Some may see all this as just scare-mongering by those who are basically anti-scientific progress, but there would seem to a valid cause for some concern. One way or another, we seem likely to be in for another round of the GM debate.
FIELD report: : www.field.org.uk/files/syntheticbiologybiofuelsbriefingpaper.pdf
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