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Bay Area may be at risk from synthetic biology research labs

by Emily Smith BeitiksSan Jose Mercury News
March 27th, 2012

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently announced a proposal to build a facility in Richmond at which synthetic biology research will be a major focus. This news should give us pause to consider exactly what risks this little-known field poses for the environment and human health.

Last year, molecular biologist Becky McClain was awarded $1.37 million in a whistle-blower suit against the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer after she was fired for raising safety concerns about the lab where she worked. McClain was infected with a genetically engineered virus being researched in her lab. She continues to experience intermittent paralysis and spinal pain, symptoms consistent with the effects of the pathogen.

McClain's story offers an important lesson for assessing a new kind of bioengineering: the rapidly growing field of synthetic biology, which has already been called genetic engineering on steroids.

Synthetic biologists build artificial organisms using the building blocks of life. While techniques vary, the intent is the same: to create life from scratch. Proponents promise extraordinary benefits, from curing diseases to replacing fossil fuels. But the unknowns are as serious as they are numerous.

Producing a synthetic organism could have unforeseeable and serious effects on the environment. In May 2006, 38 environmental and social justice organizations wrote an open letter to synthetic biology researchers, asking that governmental safeguards be put in place and studies be conducted to assess the risks posed by synthetic life-forms. Six years later, experiments continue without adequate data to assess risk.

Lab workers and nearby communities would be the first exposed to any artificial life forms that escape from synthetic biology facilities. That the new Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will bring synthetic biology research to Richmond is especially troubling, given the history of toxic exposures in this poor, predominantly of-color community. Yes, the Richmond lab may create jobs, but will they be safe jobs?

Given the pace of synthetic biology's expansion, especially in California, the slow pace of federal monitoring is unacceptable. In 2010, the Presidential Commission for the Study on Bioethical Issues produced recommendations for governance of synthetic biology. Two years later, of the commission's 18 recommendations, seven had "no federal activity," and not one has been completely fulfilled.

UC Berkeley anthropologist Paul Rabinow provided a glimpse inside a lab after he evaluated SynBERC, a Berkeley-based synthetic biology lab. According to the New York Times, Rabinow found the scientists to be "profoundly irresponsible" and indifferent toward their "responsibility to larger society" to ensure public safety above all else.

Supporters of synthetic biology say that the organisms they create are too fragile to have serious environmental health consequences. Perhaps their confidence is warranted. But doesn't it make sense to put safeguards in place?

Most synthetic biologists argue that we should trust scientists to regulate themselves. But many of them have received corporate funding. Synthetic biology pioneer Craig Venter's company, for example, has a $600 million dollar deal with Exxon. Will corporate profits come before public safety?

As plans for the Richmond lab proceed, we must demand that synthetic biologists revisit the basic lesson from high school chemistry class: safety first.

Safety for communities, workers, and the environment will be the focus of a forum in Berkeley on March 29 where these issues will be discussed. Called Unmasking the Bay Area Bio Lab and Synthetic Biology, this will be the first open forum on synthetic biology brought together not with an industry-driven agenda, but in the public interest. To learn more, go to www.synbiowatch.org.

Emily Smith Beitiks is the senior program associate with the Center for Genetics and Society, a Berkeley-based social justice non-profit. She wrote this for this newspaper.

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