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Syn-bio Organisms Need Public Scrutiny and Controls – Moratorium call

Immediate release (20 May 2010)

Calls to Pete Riley 07903 341 065

The announcement from the Craig Venter Institute that they have successfully genetically engineered an entirely artificial organism that can replicate itself raises many ethical, scientific, economic and safety issues. GM Freeze believes the general public should be fully involved in debating them.

The new “breakthrough” in genetic engineering, published in the journal Science today [1], is the creation of a simple bacterium with an entirely synthetic genome. Backers of synthetic biology claim that the technology will be able to create new organisms to produce synthetic fuels and chemicals by digesting plant materials.

GM Freeze say the new technology has progressed to the point of creating a new life form without adequate regulation or public oversight and is highly irresponsible.

The group highlight many problems and issues including:

  • should scientists be allowed to construct organisms in the first place?
  • who should decide what is developed?
  • who should benefit from such developments?
  • what are the human and environmental safety issues if such organism were to escape from laboratories or reactors?
  • what are the risk of the technology falling into the wrong hands or being misused?
  • will the escaped synthetic organisms evolve over time and what will the consequences be?
  • how and where will the crops to feed syn-bio reactors come from?
  • will there be competition for land with food crops?

Commenting Pete Riley of GM Freeze said:

This is a very significant step, which has largely taken place behind closed doors. Most people will not have been aware that such research was even being contemplated, let alone carried out. It raises profound ethical issues about whether scientists should be allowed to create viable synthetic organisms, as well as a whole range of safety, environmental, and socio economic questions the public has a right to have a say on.

The consequences of an escape of a synthetic bacterium that was designed to decompose wood could be very significant.

Today’s announcement has more to do with securing investment than practical application, so the UK Government and EU should allow time for public debate to gauge public opinion and shape regulation of this technology accordingly. A moratorium on developments should be imposed until the debate is completed and a decision is made. This is too important to be left to scientists who stand to profit if the technology is furthered without public oversight and controls.


[1] The announcement will be made at 1:00 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time Thursday, 20 May 2010, to discuss the forthcoming Science paper, “Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome.”