Synthetic biology hackers announce "self-imposed moratorium"

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky January 14, 2009
Biopolitical Times
An article in the current issue of New Scientist opens with the story of a woman in Cambridge, Massachusetts "who works as a synthetic biologist for a biotech company by day" and in her spare time at home, in a small closet, "recently concocted vials of an entirely new genetically modified organism."

According to "Rise of the garage genome hackers," scientists including George Church - the Harvard geneticist and biotech / synthetic biology entrepreneur - are encouraging these sorts of do-it-yourself adventures. So is the group DIYbio, which describes itself as an "Institution for the Amateur," along with the science fiction website, which is sponsoring a contest for "mad scientists with homebrew closet labs, grassroots geneticists, and garage genome hackers."

New Scientist has the sense to ask whether this is such a good idea. Richard Ebright, a biochemist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, notes:
Without any oversight from an institution, colleagues or peers, the probability that a cataclysmic entity might be constructed by someone unaware of known cautions is significant.
But not to worry. DIYbio says that it has called for "a self-imposed moratorium" on homebrew synthetic biology experiments, "until researchers can show that what they are doing is safe."

Jim Thomas of ETC Group, which has been tracking developments in synthetic biology, is not reassured. His comment:
I nominate this as the lamest piece of voluntary governance so far this year.