Synthetic biology

Synthetic biology is an extreme form of genetic engineering, an emerging technology that is developing rapidly and entering the marketplace. Like traditional GMOs, the products of synthetic biology are virtually unregulated, have not been assessed adequately for impacts on our health or environment, and are not required to be labeled. Instead of swapping genes from one species to another (as in traditional genetic engineering), a new basket of engineering techniques, including computer generated DNA, directed evolution, site-specific mutagenesis and more, all cluster around an approach called synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology could have serious impacts on the health of people and ecosystems, on our planet's biodiversity and for communities on the front lines of corporations' plans to deploy new technologies and novel organisms for profit.

Synbio Vanilla
Click to learn about Synbio Vanilla.

Friends of the Earth is working at the federal and international levels to establish a regulatory framework for synthetic biology that has precaution at its core -- one that ensures thorough government analysis of the potential risks and benefits and that puts protections in place before synthetic organisms are used at a commercial scale or make the jump from the lab to our environment.

The U.S. government along with the major oil, agribusiness and chemical companies are already big funders of synthetic biology research, providing hundreds of millions of dollars to start-up synthetic biology companies. Proponents hope this emerging field will create a new "bioeconomy" in which any and all types of plant matter can feed synthetic organisms that will be "living factories" producing fuels, industrial chemicals, bio-plastics, medicines and even food.

This drive for biomass to feed synthetic organisms could have major impacts on access to land, water, and fertilizers -- all of which are in short supply for food production -- and may exacerbate the current rush to grab land from communities in the global South to produce products for rich nations. The so-called "marginal" lands eyed by synthetic biology enthusiasts as the answer to this resource question are often the source of livelihood for small-scale farmers, pastoralists, women, and indigenous peoples.

The ways in which synthetic organisms will interact with the natural environment are unpredictable and potentially devastating and permanent. While other types of pollution can be cleaned up and do not breed, synthetic biological creations are designed to self-replicate and, once released into the environment, they will be impossible to recall. A synthetic organism designed for a specific task, such as eating up oil from oil spills in the ocean, could swap genes with naturally occurring organisms and outcompete them, potentially disrupting entire ecosystems as a new class of invasive species.

These potential threats underscore the need for a precautionary approach. As a first step, we are pushing for a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms until there is a better understanding of the risks and appropriate regulations are in place.

Resources

Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology
Friends of the Earth is thrilled to release the Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology, the first global declaration from civil society to outline principles that must be adopted to protect public health and our environment from the risks posed by synthetic biology.

Synthetic solutions to the Climate Crisis: The dangers of synthetic biology for biofuels production
Biotechnology is portrayed as a panacea for climate change and other societal ills.  However the claims that genetically engineered plants and microbes can sequester more carbon in the soil and produce more fuels when processed than conventional methods have yet to be proven.  In the wake of these unfulfilled promised emerges a more extreme form of genetic engineering, also touted as the solution to the climate crisis- synthetic biology.  Synthetic biology is not a sustainable solution to the climate crisis and has the potential to create an entirely new set of problems. 

Potential Impacts of Synthetic Biology on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity
This submission to the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice examines the potential impacts of synthetic biology and its relevance to the three objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity: the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.

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