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Global Coalition Sounds the Alarm on Synthetic Biology & Nanotechnology

From: <>


Today, a coalition of thirty-five international organizations
including scientists, environmentalists, trade unionists, biowarfare
experts and social justice advocates called for inclusive public
debate, regulation and oversight of the rapidly advancing field of
synthetic biology - the construction of unique and novel artificial
life forms to perform specific tasks. Synthetic biologists are
meeting this weekend in Berkeley, California where they plan to
announce a voluntary code of self-regulation for their work (1). The
organizations signing the Open Letter are calling on synthetic
biologists to abandon their proposals for self-governance and to
engage in an inclusive process of global societal debate on the
implications of their work (see attached Open Letter).

"The researchers meeting in Berkeley acknowledge the dangers of
synthetic biology in the hands of 'evildoers,' but they naively
overlook the possibility - or probability - that members of their own
community won't be able to control or predict the behavior of
synthetic biology or its societal consequences," said Jim Thomas of
ETC Group.

"Scientists creating new life forms cannot be allowed to act as judge
and jury," explains Dr. Sue Mayer, Director of GeneWatch UK. "The
possible social, environmental and bio-weapons implications are all
too serious to be left to well-meaning but self-interested
scientists. Proper public debate, regulation and policing is needed."

In the last few years, synthetic biologists, by re-writing the
genetic code of DNA, have demonstrated the ability to build new
viruses and are now developing artificial life forms. In October last
year, synthetic biologists at the US Center for Disease Control re-
created the 1918 Spanish flu virus that killed between 50-100 million
people (3) and last month scientists at the University of Wisconsin-
Madison created a new version of E. coli bacteria (4). Meanwhile,
genomics mogul Craig Venter, whose former company, Celera, led the
commercial race to sequence the human genome, now heads a new
company, Synthetic Genomics (5), that aims to commercialize
artificial microbes for use in energy, agriculture and climate change
remediation. It is one of around 40 synthetic biology companies
undertaking gene synthesis and/or building artificial DNA.

"Biotech has already ignited worldwide protests, but synthetic
biology is like genetic engineering on steroids," says Dr. Doreen
Stabinsky of Greenpeace International. "Tinkering with living
organisms that could be released in the environment poses a grave
biosafety threat to people and the planet," adds Stabinsky.

In October 2004, an editorial in the journal Nature warned, "If
biologists are indeed on the threshold of synthesizing new life
forms, the scope for abuse or inadvertent disaster could be huge."
The editorial suggested that there may be a need for an "Asilomar-
type" conference on synthetic biology - a reference to an historic
meeting in 1975 where scientists met to discuss biosafety risks
associated with genetic engineering and opted for self-governance
which ultimately pre-empted and avoided government regulation.
Following the Asilomar model the "Synthetic Biology Community"
intends to use their second conference (Synthetic Biology 2.0, 20-22
May 2006) to adopt a code of self-governance for handling the
biosafety risks.

According to the Open Letter, the effect of the Asilomar declaration
was to delay the development of appropriate government regulation and
to forestall discussion on how to address the wider socio-economic
impacts. Asilomar proved to be the wrong approach then, and Synthetic
Biology 2.0 is the wrong approach now.

"We scientists must come to terms with the fact that science can no
longer claim to be living in an abstract realm disconnected from the
rest of society," said Alexis Vlandas of International Engineers and
Scientists for Global Responsibility (INES).

The signatories to the Open Letter urge the synthetic biologists
meeting in Berkeley to withdraw their declaration of self-governance
and join in seeking a wider, inclusive dialogue.


For further information:

North America:

Jim Thomas - ETC Group, email:,
ph: +1 613 241 2267

Pat Mooney - ETC Group, email:
cell: +1 613 261 0688

Hope Shand - ETC Group, email:
ph: +1 919 960-5767

Edward Hammond - Sunshine Project (biological weapons expert)
cell: +1 510 717 7772

Beth Burrows - Edmonds Institute: email:,
ph: +1 425-775-5383


Dr Sue Mayer - GeneWatch UK, email:,
                ph: +44 1298 871898 (office); mobile: + 44 7930 308807

Alexis Vlandas - International Network of Engineers and Scientists
ph: +44 7747 036446

A background note for press is available from the ETC Group at and at

Notes to Editors:

1.     Go here to read about Synthetic Biology 2.0 Conference and
proposals for self-governance:

2.     Tumpey, TM et al (2005) Characterization of the Reconstructed
1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic Virus.  Science 310: 77 - 80.

3.     Posfai, G et al (2006) Emergent Properties of Reduced-Genome
Escherichia coli. Published online April 27 2006; 10.1126/science.
1126439 (Science Express Reports).


Text of Open Letter:

An Open Letter from Social Movements and other Civil Society
Organizations to the Synthetic Biology 2.0 Conference May 20-22, 2006
Berkeley, California concerning the "community-wide vote" on
Biosecurity and Biosafety resolutions (to be implemented Jan 1, 2007.)

We are writing to express our deep concerns about the rapidly
developing field of Synthetic Biology that is attempting to create
novel life forms and artificial living systems. We believe that this
potentially powerful technology is being developed without proper
societal debate concerning socio-economic, security, health,
environmental and human rights implications. We are alarmed that
synthetic biologists meeting this weekend intend to vote on a scheme
of voluntary self-regulation without consulting or involving broader
social groups. We urge you to withdraw these self-governance
proposals and participate in a process of open and inclusive
oversight of this technology.

Asilomar 2.0?

In 1975 a group of scientists convened at Asilomar to
try to address the safety hazards associated with genetic
engineering. The Asilomar meeting promoted self-regulation that had
the result of preempting public debate and preventing government
action. Synthetic Biology 2.0 follows down the same self-regulation
road. The scope of discussion at Asilomar was narrowly limited to
questions of safety hazards - explicitly excluding broader socio-
economic and ethical issues. The effect of the Asilomar declaration
was to delay the development of appropriate government regulation and
to forestall discussion on how to address the wider socio- economic
impacts. Asilomar proved to be the wrong approach then, and Synthetic
Biology 2.0 is the wrong approach now.

We recognize that you are justifiably concerned about certain risks
of Synthetic Biology, but society requires strong mandatory measures
in accordance with the precautionary principle to curtail these
risks.  As the chair of the recent Boston 'Town Hall Meeting'
speaking about the recent proposals said: "I don't think this will
have a significant impact on the misuse of this technology." We agree
that these proposals will be ineffectual. Moreover, the social,
economic, ethical, environmental and human rights concerns that arise
from the field of synthetic biology go far beyond deterring
bioterrorists and  "evildoers." Issues of ownership (including
intellectual property), direction and control of the science,
technology, processes and products must also be thoroughly considered.

Society - especially social movements and marginalized peoples - must
be fully engaged in designing and directing dialogue on the
governance of synthetic biology. Because of the potential power and
scope of this field, discussions and decisions concerning these
technologies must take place in an accessible way (including
physically accessible) at local, national and global levels.

In the absence of effective regulation it is understandable that
scientists are seeking to establish best practices but the real
solution is for them to join with society to demand broad public
oversight and governmental action to ensure social wellbeing.
Moreover, in the years since Asilomar, science has become more
strongly linked to commercial interests, so this can appear as an
industry saying that it should only police itself. We urge you
therefore to withdraw your declaration of self-governance and join
with us in seeking a wider inclusive dialogue.

List of Organizations Signing the Open Letter

Accion Ecologica (Ecuador) -
California for GE Free Agriculture -

Centro Ecologico (Brazil)

Clean Production Action -

Corporate Europe Observatory -

Corporate Watch (UK) -

Edmonds Institute - www.edmonds-institute.or/

ETC Group -

Farmers Link -

Friends of the Earth International -

Foundation on Future Farming (Germany) -

Foundation Science Citoyennes (France) -

Gaia Foundation -

GeneEthics Network (Australia) -

Genewatch (UK)


Greenpeace International -

Henry Doubleday Research Association (UK) -

Indigenous People's Biodiversity Network

International Center for Technology Assessment -

International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global
responsibility -

Institute for Social Ecology -

Institute for Bioethics, Culture and Disability -

International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers -

Lok Sanjh Foundation (Pakistan) -

National Farmers Union (Canada) -

Oakland Institute -

Polaris Institute -

Pakistan Dehqan Assembly

Practical Action -

Quechua Ayamara Association for Sustainable Livelihoods, (Peru) -

Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (India) -

Soil Association -

Sunshine Project -

Third World Network -
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