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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."
Moratorium

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.

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