Open Letter

Three Items Press release, Open Letter and Bckground information

 

19th May 2006 NEWS RELEASE

 

Global Coalition Sounds the Alarm on Synthetic Biology,

Demands Oversight and Societal Debate

Today, a coalition of thirty-eight international organizations including scientists, environmentalists, trade unionists, biowarfare experts and social justice advocates called for inclusive public debate, regulation and oversight of the rapidly advancing field of synthetic biology - the construction of unique and novel artificial life forms to perform specific tasks. Synthetic biologists are meeting this weekend in Berkeley, California where they plan to announce a voluntary code of self-regulation for their work (1). The organizations signing the Open Letter are calling on synthetic biologists to abandon their proposals for self-governance and to engage in an inclusive process of global societal debate on the implications of their work (see attached Open Letter).

"The researchers meeting in Berkeley acknowledge the dangers of synthetic biology in the hands of 'evildoers,' but they naively overlook the possibility - or probability - that members of their own community won't be able to control or predict the behavior of synthetic biology or its societal consequences," said Jim Thomas of ETC Group.

"Scientists creating new life forms cannot be allowed to act as judge and jury," explains Dr. Sue Mayer, Director of GeneWatch UK. "The possible social, environmental and bio-weapons implications are all too serious to be left to well-meaning but self-interested scientists. Proper public debate, regulation and policing is needed."

In the last few years, synthetic biologists, by re-writing the genetic code of DNA, have demonstrated the ability to build new viruses and are now developing artificial life forms. In October last year, synthetic biologists at the US Center for Disease Control re-created the 1918 Spanish flu virus that killed between 50-100 million people (2) and last month scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a new version of E. coli bacteria (3). Meanwhile, genomics mogul Craig Venter, whose former company, Celera, led the commercial race to sequence the human genome, now heads a new company, Synthetic Genomics (4), that aims to commercialize artificial microbes for use in energy, agriculture and climate change remediation. It is one of around 40 synthetic biology companies undertaking gene synthesis and/or building artificial DNA.

"Biotech has already ignited worldwide protests, but synthetic biology is like genetic engineering on steroids," says Dr. Doreen Stabinsky of Greenpeace International. "Tinkering with living organisms that could be released in the environment poses a grave biosafety threat to people and the planet," adds Stabinsky.

In October 2004, an editorial in the journal Nature warned, "If biologists are indeed on the threshold of synthesizing new life forms, the scope for abuse or inadvertent disaster could be huge." The editorial suggested that there may be a need for an "Asilomar-type" conference on synthetic biology - a reference to an historic meeting in 1975 where scientists met to discuss biosafety risks associated with genetic engineering and opted for self-governance which ultimately pre-empted and avoided government regulation. Following the Asilomar model the "Synthetic Biology Community" intends to use their second conference (Synthetic Biology 2.0, 20-22 May 2006) to adopt a code of self-governance for handling the biosafety risks.

According to the Open Letter, the effect of the Asilomar declaration was to delay the development of appropriate government regulation and to forestall discussion on how to address the wider socio-economic impacts. Asilomar proved to be the wrong approach then, and Synthetic Biology 2.0 is the wrong approach now.

"We scientists must come to terms with the fact that science can no longer claim to be living in an abstract realm disconnected from the rest of society," said Alexis Vlandas of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility (INES).

The signatories to the Open Letter urge the synthetic biologists meeting in Berkeley to withdraw their declaration of self-governance and join in seeking a wider, inclusive dialogue.

ENDS

For further information:

North America:

Jim Thomas - ETC Group, email: jim@etcgroup.org, ph: +1 613 2412267

Pat Mooney - ETC Group, email: mooney@etcgroup.org ,  cell: +1 613 2610688

Hope Shand - ETC Group, email: hope@etcgroup.org ph: +1 919 960-5767

Edward Hammond - Sunshine Project (biological weapons expert)
                                                            email: Hammond@sunshineproject.org, cell: +1 510 717 7772

Beth Burrows - Edmonds Institute: email: beb@igc.org, ph: +1 425-775-5383

 

Europe:

Dr Sue Mayer - GeneWatch UK, email: sue.mayer@genewatch.org,
                                                ph: +44 1298 871898 (office); mobile: + 44 7930 308807

Alexis Vlandas - International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility
                                                email: alexis.vlandas@materials.ox.ac.uk, ph: +44 7747 036446

A background note for press is available from the ETC Group at www.etcgroup.org and at www.etcblog.org

Notes to Editors:

1.     Go here to read about Synthetic Biology 2.0 Conference and proposals for self-governance: http://syntheticbiology.org

2.     Tumpey, TM et al (2005) Characterization of the Reconstructed 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic Virus.  Science 310: 77 - 80.

3.     Posfai, G et al (2006) Emergent Properties of Reduced-Genome Escherichia coli. Published online April 27 2006; 10.1126/science.1126439 (Science Express Reports).

4.     http://www.syntheticgenomics.com/

 

Text of Open Letter:

An Open Letter from Social Movements and other Civil Society Organizations to the Synthetic Biology 2.0 Conference May 20-22, 2006 Berkeley, California concerning the "community-wide vote" on Biosecurity and Biosafety resolutions (to be implemented Jan 1, 2007.)

We are writing to express our deep concerns about the rapidly developing field of Synthetic Biology that is attempting to create novel life forms and artificial living systems. We believe that this potentially powerful technology is being developed without proper societal debate concerning socio-economic, security, health, environmental and human rights implications. We are alarmed that synthetic biologists meeting this weekend intend to vote on a scheme of voluntary self-regulation without consulting or involving broader social groups. We urge you to withdraw these self-governance proposals and participate in a process of open and inclusive oversight of this technology.

Asilomar 2.0? In 1975 a group of scientists convened at Asilomar to try to address the safety hazards associated with genetic engineering. The Asilomar meeting promoted self-regulation that had the result of preempting public debate and preventing government action. Synthetic Biology 2.0 follows down the same self-regulation road. The scope of discussion at Asilomar was narrowly limited to questions of safety hazards - explicitly excluding broader socio-economic and ethical issues. The effect of the Asilomar declaration was to delay the development of appropriate government regulation and to forestall discussion on how to address the wider socio- economic impacts. Asilomar proved to be the wrong approach then, and Synthetic Biology 2.0 is the wrong approach now.
We recognize that you are justifiably concerned about certain risks of Synthetic Biology, but society requires strong mandatory measures in accordance with the precautionary principle to curtail these risks.  As the chair of the recent Boston 'Town Hall Meeting' speaking about the recent proposals said: "I don't think this will have a significant impact on the misuse of this technology." We agree that these proposals will be ineffectual. Moreover, the social, economic, ethical, environmental and human rights concerns that arise from the field of synthetic biology go far beyond deterring bioterrorists and  "evildoers." Issues of ownership (including intellectual property), direction and control of the science, technology, processes and products must also be thoroughly considered.

Society - especially social movements and marginalized peoples - must be fully engaged in designing and directing dialogue on the governance of synthetic biology. Because of the potential power and scope of this field, discussions and decisions concerning these technologies must take place in an accessible way (including physically accessible) at local, national and global levels.

In the absence of effective regulation it is understandable that scientists are seeking to establish best practices but the real solution is for them to join with society to demand broad public oversight and governmental action to ensure social wellbeing. Moreover, in the years since Asilomar, science has become more strongly linked to commercial interests, so this can appear as an industry saying that it should only police itself. We urge you therefore to withdraw your declaration of self-governance and join with us in seeking a wider inclusive dialogue.

List of Organizations Signing the Open Letter

 

Accion Ecologica (Ecuador) - www.accionecologica.org 

California for GE Free Agriculture - www.calgefree.org 

Centro Ecologico (Brazil)

Clean Production Action - www.cleanproduction.org 

Cornerhouse UK - www.thecornerhouse.org.uk 

Corporate Europe Observatory - www.corporateeurope.org 

Corporate Watch (UK) - www.corporatewatch.org 

EcoNexus - www.econexus.info 

Ecoropa

Edmonds Institute - www.edmonds-institute.org 

ETC Group - www.etcgroup.org 

Farmers Link - www.farmerslink.org.uk 

Friends of the Earth International - www.foe.org 

Foundation on Future Farming (Germany) - www.zs-l.de 

Fondation Sciences Citoyennes (France) - www.sciencescitoyennes.org 

Gaia Foundation - www.gaiafoundation.org 

GeneEthics Network (Australia) - www.geneethics.org 

Genewatch (UK) -www.genewatch.org

GRAIN - www.grain.org 

Greenpeace International - www.greenpeace.org 

Henry Doubleday Research Association (UK) - www.gardenorganic.org.uk 

Indigenous People's Biodiversity Network  ipbn@web.net

International Center for Technology Assessment - www.icta.org 

International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility - www.inesglobal.com

Institute for Social Ecology - www.social-ecology.org 

International Center for Bioethics, Culture and Disability - www.bioethicsanddisability.org 

International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers - www.iuf.org 

Lok Sanjh Foundation (Pakistan) - www.loksanjh.org 

National Farmers Union (Canada) - www.nfu.ca 

Oakland Institute - www.oaklandinstitute.org 

Polaris Institute - www.polarisinstitute.org 

Pakistan Dehqan Assembly

Practical Action - www.practicalaction.org 

Quechua Ayamara Association for Sustainable Livelihoods, (Peru) - www.andes.org.pe

Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (India) - www.navdanya.org 

Soil Association - www.soilassociation.org

Sunshine Project - www.sunshine-project.org

Third World Network - www.twnside.org.sg 

 

Background Document Synthetic Biology – Global Societal Review Urgent!

Synthetic biology (the attempt to create artificial living organisms) should be self-regulated say scientists at Berkeley assembly. Civil Society organizations say "No!"

"If biologists are indeed on the threshold of synthesizing new life forms, the scope for abuse or inadvertent disaster could be huge." Nature, October 2004

Scientists working at the interface of engineering and biology - in the new field of "synthetic biology" - worry that public distrust of biotechnology could impede their research or draw attention to regulatory chasms. Synthetic biologists are trying to design and construct artificial living systems to perform specific tasks, such as producing pharmaceutical compounds or energy. In October 2004, the journal Nature warned, "if biologists are indeed on the threshold of synthesizing new life forms, the scope for abuse or inadvertent disaster could be huge." An editorial in that same issue suggested that there may be a need for an "Asilomar"-type conference on synthetic biology. In light of these concerns, scientists gathering at "Synthetic Biology 2.0" (May 20-22, 2006) at the University of California-Berkeley hope to make "significant progress" toward a "code of ethics and standards." Their actions are intended to project the message that the synthetic biologists are being pro-active and capable of governing themselves as a "community." In their view, self-governance is the best way forward to safely reap the benefits (both societal and financial) of synthetic biology. Civil Society organizations disagree.

"There are two ways of dealing with dangerous technologies," says Tom Knight, a leading figure in synthetic biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "One is to keep the technology secret. The other one is do it faster and better than everyone else. My view is that we have absolutely no choice but to do the latter." – New Scientist, 18th May 2006

Go here to read about the Synthetic Biology 2.0 conference, and the proposals for self-governance: http://syntheticbiology.org/SB2.0/Biosecurity_resolutions.html
 
What is synthetic biology? The products of synthetic biology could be at least one order of magnitude more potent and invasive than those from conventional biotechnology. Barely six years old, synthetic biology attempts to construct unique and novel organisms - from the bottom up. Unlike today's genetic engineering which "cuts and pastes" existing genes between species, synthetic biology rewrites the code of life to create new DNA modules programmed to self-assemble with other modules to create designer organisms (mostly viruses and bacteria) capable of functions normally associated with mechanical production lines. There are already many synthetic biology companies receiving funding from government, military and private interests. At least 39 gene synthesis companies are manufacturing artificial DNA and parts of DNA (oligonucleotides). Most of the US-based work is in the Boston area (where the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is located), around Berkeley, California and at Craig Venter's Institute for Genomic Research in Maryland.

Much of synthetic biology is still 'proof of principle' research that involves gimmicks such as microbes blinking in coordinated rhythm or light-sensitive bacteria that can capture a photographic image. Some of the work, however, comes with breathtaking implications for biodiversity and life. Researchers in California and Florida, for example, have taken standard four-letter DNA (A,C,G,T) and built on a fifth and then a sixth letter– making it theoretically possible to create species of unbelievable complexity.

Synthetic Biology – Why Worry? By seizing control of the genetic code to make entirely new organisms and viruses, synthetic biology has the potential to hugely extend and heighten the risks of genetic engineering and make vastly more problematic scenarios possible...

Synthetic Biologists promote self-governance: Because building new life forms from scratch goes far beyond genetic engineering (GE), synthetic biologists fear the global controversy that surrounded GE will arise to hamstring their own work. In reaction, researchers are developing media strategies, holding "town hall" meetings and drafting their own version of the Asilomar declaration.

On 22 May, scientists attending Synthetic Biology 2.0 will vote on a proposed "voluntary" code to prevent biosecurity risks. The code has been developed without societal - or even governmental - input; it doesn’t recognize the precautionary principle; and, addresses only biosecurity risks. The scientists acknowledge the dangers of synthetic biology in the hands of "evildoers," but they overlook the possibility, and even likelihood, that members of their own community won't be able to control or predict the behaviour of synthetic biology products.

The proposed interventions to be discussed and voted on at Synthetic Biology 2.0 include:

 

Synthetic biologists say there will be tremendous societal benefits to their work such as environmental remediation, new drugs to combat diseases such as malaria and new energy sources. But broad socio-economic, health and environmental risks (beyond bioterrorism) are not on the table. The synthetic biology community has also ignored blatant conflicts of interest - most of the scientific leaders in synthetic biology have established their own synthetic biology start-ups. Synthetic biology must not be governed by those seeking to profit from it.

Synthetic Biology 2.0 - Asilomar 2.0? Rather than accepting (as popularly assumed) a moratorium on genetic engineering, the 1975 Asilomar meeting laid out the ground rules by which scientific research could proceed. Ultimately, Asilomar created a public image of scientific responsibility and ethical behavior that delayed the development of appropriate government regulation and explicitly avoided any discussion of wider social and economic impacts. Asilomar proved to be the wrong approach then, and it is an unacceptable model to address synthetic biology now.

Open Letter from Civil Society
In response to the proposed voluntary code that is being discussed at Synthetic Biology 2.0, Thirty-five civil society organizations have issued a joint letter calling on the synthetic biologists to withdraw from this self-governance approach. The letter emphasizes that:

 

The organizations that have signed the open letter work in over sixty countries and include scientists, engineers, environmentalists, farmers, social justice advocates, trade unionists and biowarfare experts:

Stephen M. Maurer et al., “From Understanding to Action: Community-Based Options for Improving Safety and Security in Synthetic Biology,” Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley, available on the Internet: http://syntheticbiology.org/Documents.html

 

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