Scientific Advances
Natural compound speeds bone growth
Astronomers spy massive stars in the making
Frog gene map a leap forward for humans
Sun-shy mums may raise MS risk in babies
Soft fossils provide new target for ET search
Mammoth blood brought back to life
Outdoor exercise can boost self esteem
Athletes on growth hormone 'sprint faster'
Countdown begins to 520 day 'Mars mission'
Warmer planet to stress humans: study
Plasma rocket to shorten space voyages
Vaccine may trigger infant epilepsy onset
'Fingerprinting' points to dusty Australia
The hole in the ozone layer: 25 years on
Humans interbred with Neanderthals: analysis
Herschel shows star formation is slowing
Washing hands makes tough choices easier
'Face-book' to measure pain in mice
Science gives clues to World Cup success
Human sigh acts as a reset button
Expert confirms Phar Lap arsenic theory
Dictionary blunder a matter of gravity
Warning on high-dose vitamin D
Calling mum makes you feel better
Synthetic biology research gets a hearing
As a US congressional hearing examines the implications of synthetic biology, civil society groups have called for a halt to commercialisation of the technology, and for consideration of its broader implications.

Five expert witnesses have been invited to address the Hearing on Developments in Synthetic Genomics and Implications for Health and Energy to be held in Washington D.C. today.

Witnesses will include Dr Craig Venter, who has been working for years toward making a completely synthetic organism from scratch.

Last week, Venter made a media splash by announcing he had made the "first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell".

Venter hopes to use the technology to make new and better vaccines, to create organisms that will pump out jet fuel, and to make "cars that can run on garbage".

Among other things, Venter has a US$600 million joint venture with Exxon Mobil Corp to try to develop biofuel from algae.

The US House Committee on Energy and Commerce will also hear from Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who will be able to speak about Venter's collaboration with the National Institutes of Health to try to make a universal flu vaccine in just days using an artificial genetic sequence.

Another witness will be Dr Jay Keasling of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in California, who directs the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center at the University of California Berkeley, where scientists are working to engineer microbes that can eat pollutants.

The committee will also hear from Dr Drew Endy of Stanford University in California, who also works to make synthetic organisms. Endy is on the record about using synthetic biology to revolutionise agriculture and has been widely and colourfully quoted about genetically engineering a gourd that could grow into a house.

Finally, Dr Gregory Kaebnick of The Hastings Center, a bioethics think-tank will testify. Kaebnick has been working on a project with Venter's institute to examine the philosophical issues of trying to create synthetic life.
Civil society submission

A number of civil society groups have claimed the witnesses are dominated by advocates of synthetic biology, and have jointly submitted a written testimony to the congressional committee.

The testimony prepared by The ETC Group, The International Center for Technology Assessment and Friends of The Earth focuses on the broader environmental and societal implications of synthetic biology.

"We believe the committee should consider the implications of this new industry as a whole in its deliberations not just the technical breakthrough reported last week," the testimony reads.

Among other things the testimony criticises claims by advocates of synthetic biology that the it can provide a sustainable source of energy.

For example, says the testimony, one proposal is to develop an algal species that efficiently converts atmospheric carbon dioxide into hydrocarbon fuel, "supposedly addressing both the climate crisis and peak oil concerns in one fell swoop".

But, it says, algae require water, fertilisers, and open space to grow and scaling up such algal biofuel production could make the situation worse.

The testimony cites expert evidence that algae's environmental footprint is larger than other terrestrial crops.

"The sobering reality is that a switch to a bio-based industrial economy could exert much more pressure on land, water, soil, fertiliser, forest resources and conservation areas. It may also do little to address greenhouse gas emissions, potentially worsening climate change."

Synthetic biology has quickly and quietly grown into a multi-billion dollar industry with products already available in the marketplace, states the testimony.

It calls for a moratorium on the release of synthetic organisms into the environment and also their use in commercial settings until further consideration of their consequences.

"It is imperative that in the pursuit of scientific experimentation and wealth creation, we do not sacrifice human health, the environment, and natural ecosystems. These technologies could have powerful and unpredictable consequences," the testimony reads.

"This technology must now be accountably regulated."

The civil society groups call for more hearings into the technology to "transparently" consider the risks of synthetic biology for the environment, biodiversity, human health, and all associated socio-economic repercussions.

Climate change impact on malaria questioned
Single lens glasses can help prevent falls
Movies manipulate our primal response
Luminescent sharks become invisible
Synthetic biology research gets a hearing
Source of ancient carbon 'burp' detected
Why the goddess of love is in a spin
Computer program recognises online sarcasm
New dinosaur had record-sized horns
Physicists solve missing neutrino mystery
Milk from grass-fed cows may be better
Crabs caught spying on rivals' love claws
Lifestyle may not boost breast cancer gene risk
'Trade-off' gene for plants discovered
Pacific islands growing, not sinking
Caffeine addicts get no real perk
Velvet worm's deadly slime revealed
SpaceX cleared for Florida lift-off
Cyborg rights 'need debating now'
Sunlight shines on silver technology
Mountain biking as risky as football, diving
Dusty simulations may reveal planets
Legal fight over breast cancer gene
Unions call for urgent nano information
Solar panel attraction deadly for insects
Meat eaters munched many ways: study
Snakes may be in decline worldwide
Dogs dumbed down by domestication
Fossil sheds new light on 'dino-bird'
DNA 'spiderbot' is on the prowl
GM cotton use increases fruit pest problem
Warming to kill off a fifth of all lizards
Super massive black hole given the boot
Ball lightning could be 'all in the mind'
Immune system could be used to test for TB
Mobile phone cancer link unclear, study
Teen brain wired to take risks
Synchrotron probes Egyptian beads
Argonauts 'gulp' air to swim freely
Space station gets a new room
'Digital genome' to protect dying data formats
Sweep yields leads for new malaria drugs
Researchers snap signs of illegal fishing
Spectrum reveals supernova surprise
Scientists create synthetic life
Eavesdropping a waste of energy
Star caught eating its offspring
Megafauna die-off may have cooled planet
Hepatitis C no longer 'death sentence'
Atoms bring quantum computing closer
Visualisation staves off constant craving
Experts debate homeopathy funding
Visit Statistics