Op-Ed

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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...