Eric Hoffman advocates science in the public interest.
In March 2012, 113 civil society organizations from around the world released The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology , a declaration outlining how the emerging field of synthetic biology needs to be regulated.
Synthetic biology is often referred to as ‘extreme genetic engineering’. Unlike ‘old’ genetic engineering, in which genes are cut and pasted between different organisms, synthetic biology involves the writing and re-writing of genetic code from scratch, in order to create novel traits and organisms. This new field is rapidly developing, with major public and private funding, in the absence of regulation or public engagement.
The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology outlines seven governing principles, which are necessary to ensure that the field of synthetic biology develops in a way that does not threaten our environment, human health, or social justice. These are to employ the precautionary principle; require mandatory synthetic biology-specific regulations; protect public health and worker safety; protect the environment; guarantee the right-to-know and democratic participation; require corporate accountability and manufacturer liability; and protect economic and environmental justice.
Inherent in these principles is the underlying value that science must be conducted in the public – not private – interest. Unfortunately, synthetic biology has largely been guided by private interests and the quest for new industrial products, while the risks posed by this emerging technology are shared
by the public.
Most of the world’s top oil, chemical, agriculture, and pharmaceutical corporations have made investments in synthetic biology research and start-ups. The first applications to reach the market reflect these interests: industrial chemicals, high-end oils, and plastics.
Some medicines and vaccines are in the works, but funding for these projects are overshadowed by the $500 million (about £314 million) invested by BP into the University of California Berkeley’s biofuels and synthetic biology research. And by Exxon’s $600 million (£376 million) investment into Synthetic Genomics, created by synthetic biology super-star Craig Venter, to create biofuels from algae, for example. This research is often patented or kept secret as ‘confidential business information’.
Even publicly-funded universities and research institutions encourage the use of publicly-funded research (and intellectual property) to create private start-up companies. For example Jay Keasling, University of California professor and director of the Joint Bioenergy Institute, has turned his research into three private synthetic biology companies: Amyris Biotechnologies, LS9, and Lygos.
While profits from synthetic biology research are privatised, the risks are spread to public. If synthetic algae escapes into a river and becomes an invasive species, it is the public that must pay the cost for clean-up and a damaged ecosystem. If a worker is infected by a virus engineered through synthetic biology tools, it is she, her family and the surrounding community whose health is put at risk. If synthetic biology production of plant compounds displaces farmers that have naturally produced those products for generations, farming communities in the global South will feel the brunt of these industrial shifts.
Regulators and scientists should follow the recommendations laid out in the Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology to ensure that synthetic biology does not keep running fast in the wrong direction. The values in these principles, and the underlying value that science must be conducted to benefit the public, must guide developments in the technology.
Until then, we must ensure that synthetic organisms are not released outside the lab or commercialized until the proper laws, regulations, and biosafety measures are in place, the proper risk assessments have been conducted, and we have a research agenda that is truly guided by the public interest.
This emerging technology that has made us rethink ‘What is life?’ should also be an opportunity to rethink how science is conducted, by whom, and in whose interest.