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GM Freeze Supports SynBio Moratorium Call After Artificial Gene Assembled

Immediate release (25 Jan 2008)

Calls to: Pete Riley 0845 217 8992 or 07903 341 065 or Helena Paul 0207 431 4357

GM Freeze has joined calls by the ETC group [1] for a moratorium on developments in synthetic biology after it was announced in the journal Science [2] that a team in the USA had taken a step towards the chemical synthesis of of an artificial bacterial genome.

The group, led by Craig Venter, claim to have successfully assembled the genome of a simple bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium.

Their work builds on that of a number of groups that have been working to synthesise DNA and assemble genes over recent years. This is not the “minimal genome” promised by Venter’s team as they note that they were not able to leave out any of the genes, as they do not know which of the genes they consider “non-essential” are “simultaneously dispensable”.

The synthetic genome is not yet ready for the next step – being inserted into an empty cell “chassis” and living as an independent organism and reproducing. There are some errors and some unsolved problems still to addressed. The group claim that they have blocked pathenogencity. However, GM Freeze point out that this should be viewed in the context of the adaptation pressures thereby exerted on mycoplasma to recover full functioning as soon as possible. The capacity of bacteria to exchange information and to adapt should never be underestimated.

Concerns about the rapid developments in synthetic biology have been growing in the past year. In particular the lack of public or political oversight and control over the near technology and how it might be applied. In particular the potential creation of new life forms would raise serious moral and ethical concerns for many people. At present the research, largely based in the USA, is not regulated.

GM Freeze is also concerned about several other aspects of this development in genetic engineering:

  • The safety of the artificial organisms for the environment and health.
  • The effectiveness of bio-security arrangements.
  • The potential for the technology to be misused by states, terrorists or
    criminals.
  • The lack of capacity and knowledge to carry out full risk assessments.
  • The social and economic impacts.
  • The land use and agricultural implications of producing the feed stocks
    required to feed synthetic organisms.
  • Patenting of genetic sequences.
  • Cultural impacts.

Commenting Pete Riley of GM Freeze said:

Like other forms of genetic engineering synthetic biology has the potential to be a hugely powerful technology. It is therefore very surprising that the creation of an artificial, but at present non functional genome, has been achieved but politicians have not instigated any form of public debate about the ethics of the new technology and how it should be regulated. There is a real need for a moratorium on developments so that proper public oversight and control can be established. Synthetic biology has the potential to go badly wrong. In the long term scientists will benefit from an ethical and regulatory framework which has public support in which to operate.

ENDs

Calls to: Pete Riley 0845 217 8992 or 07903 341 065 or Helena Paul 0207 431 4357.

Please note GM Freeze’s new land line number 0845 217 8992.

Notes
[1] See www.etcgroup.org/en/materials/publications.html?pub_id=670.

[2] See www.sciencemag.org/sciencexpress/recent.dtl.