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Environmentalists Try to Ban Release of Synthetic Life Forms into the Wild

Environmentalists have begun a concerted campaign to ensure that new forms of "artificial life" are never released into the wider environment because of fears that the life-forms will hasten the extinction of wild species.

A Canadian environmental group has already claimed partial victory in trying to impose a global moratorium on scientists such as Craig Venter, the controversial genome entrepreneur who last week claimed that he had made a synthetic cell in at test-tube controlled by a chromosome created from scratch.

The Etc Group, based in Ottawa, said it had helped to formulate a "de facto moratorium" on synthetic biology at a side meeting of the UN Conventional on Biological Diversity, which ended at the weekend in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. A scientific body attached to the convention, called the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice, drew up a proposal on synthetic biology that is likely to result in any release experiments into the wild being banned if adopted by a meeting of environment ministers in Japan this year, the Etc Group said.

"The draft adopted by the meeting amounts to a de facto moratorium on the release of synthetic life forms. But the text will remain in 'square brackets', meaning that it has not achieved unanimous agreement among the Biological Convention's 193 member countries at this time," a spokesman said.

The moratorium on any release of synthetic life-forms is likened to the earlier moratoria on "terminator technology", a suicide gene that prevents GM seeds from being fertile after they are harvested, and ocean fertilisation, an attempt to spread iron into the sea to stimulate the absorption of carbon dioxide from the air.