By: Myles Power Edited by: Hannah
As many of you will know, I am not a big fan of David Shukman (BBC Science Editor). This dislike came from watching his biased broadcast on the BBC, in which he cast a shadow on the hard work of synthetic biologists and the subject as a whole. I later found out that at the same time, he published a related article on the BBC news website. It was just as misinformed and alarmist as the broadcast and inexcusably made a link between synthetic biology and the accidental release of the foot-and-mouth virus in 2007. It also came with links to reports from Lloyd’s of London and a coalition of environmentalists, which had been quoted in the broadcast. The Lloyd’s of London report was factually incorrect (DNA is a binary code, all organisms have chromosomes, etc), but it did come with a disclaimer saying, “Whilst all care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information, Lloyd’s does not accept any responsibility for any errors and omissions”. It suggested real possible dangers for this technology in a non-alarmist way by simply stating them. However the report from the coalition of environmentalists (The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology) was the complete opposite.
In David’s article, he states that a coalition of more than a hundred environmental groups endorsed a report calling for a moratorium on the commercial release of any product of synthetic biology. This report can be found on the interestingly-named ‘Friends of the Earth’ blog (because, when you think about it, no one is not a friend of the Earth, unless they happen to be a Klingon, Romulan, Xindi, etc) and was indeed endorsed by more than a hundred environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth Australia, Friends of the Earth Brazil, Friends of the Earth Canada, Friends of the Earth Cyprus, etc.
The report describes synthetic biology as an “extreme form of genetic engineering” and claims that companies investing in this new technology, as well as the scientists performing the work, want to “take over the forests and land of the global south” and “make new cosmetics for the rich”. The report even goes as far as blaming synthetic biology for the burning of sugar cane fields, resulting in large quantities of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. They even show a picture:
Some farmers do set fire to sugarcane burning away the dry leaves without harming the stalk or roots. This decreases the volume of material to be processed by the factories and lowers the cost of production. This method is most common in the developing world, since faster and more environmentally friendly sugarcane harvesters are more popular in the developed world. It is true that some of the techniques used in synthetic biology do use ingredients obtained from sugar cane. However, I feel it’s insulting to the readers’ intelligence to suggest that the small quantities used by scientists will have a impact on the environment, when the sugarcane industry harvests 1.69 billion tonnes of sugarcane annually. It should also be mentioned that the same techniques and ingredients used in synthetic biology have been used for decades. This has led to some scientists arguing over whether Synthetic Biology is a new discipline or simply an extension of existing work.
The report was extremely misleading and took things out of context, making it sound like all that hardworking scientists want to achieve is to become the next Bond villian. The best example of this was when the review stated that “synthetic biologists have already synthesised working viruses, including the deadly 1918 influenza virus”, because apparently, when scientists are not inventing machines to punch puppies in the face, they are synthesising deadly viruses, just for shits and giggles. The truth is that one of the greatest threats to public health would be for a new pandemic strain of the influenza virus to emerge; one that could kill millions of people before a vaccine could be made.
Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) Synthetic Biology Group are using synthetic biology to accelerate the manufacture of these vaccines. The influenza vaccines are currently being produced by creating a hybrid virus strain, using classical genetics. Growth and isolation of a hybrid virus with the right mix of genes can take up to 35 days. Synthetic biologists have now developed a method to produce the exact virus required for a vaccine. They achieve this by synthesising a DNA copy of the virus in question and introducing it into a mammalian cell, to produce an actual virus; they can do this in as few as 5 days. This technically means that it’s not the synthetic biologists that are synthesising the virus, as it is being produced in the host mammalian cell. This technology has the potential of saving millions of lives in the future, yet this report would have you believe that it is being used for EVIL! (thunder noise)
It becomes obvious after reading the first few pages that this report is not only trying to call for a moratorium on the commercial release of any product of synthetic biology, but is also trying to call for a stop on synthetic biology altogether. It claims that the research carried out in laboratories across the world is “developing rapidly with little oversight or regulation despite carrying vast uncertainy”. This couldn’t be further from the truth, since products of synthetic biology – like all genetically modified organisms – have to stick to strict guidelines regarding production, containment, ethics, etc. I’m not saying there’s no more room for more regulation, but to say that there is currently little of it is simply an outright lie. As for the uncertainties, I for one am unsure what they are, and by the sound of it, so are the authors of the report. They simply state that it WILL! disrupt eco-systems, farming, fishing, etc; that it WILL! threaten human health and undermine social, economic and cultural rights; all without explaining the mechanism of its action.
In conclusion, I feel that work being carried out by trained professionals – who have dedicated years of their lives to this research – are having it threatened by people with no background in science. This technology has the potential to save and enrich lives in the developing world, and is being sabotaged by people with little knowledge on the subject in the developed world; people like David Shukman, who are simply unfairly tarnishing its image.