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There is no central authority that coordinates research and planning on synthetic biology. Even though synthetic biology poses serious risks, there are no specific standards for determining threat levels to humans, animals, plants, microorganisms or the environment. Experiments involving the synthesis of completely novel synthetic DNA sequences can make a harmless microbe into a new pathogen with dangerous and far-reaching consequences. There are very real concerns that synthetic biology research could result in enhanced virulence, the ability to infect a wider range of organisms, and resistance to antimicrobials, antivirals, vaccines and other treatment or containment responses. As Jonathan Tucker and Raymond Zilinskas explained in "The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology," in the journal New Atlantis, because synthetic microorganisms are self-replicating and capable of evolution, they could proliferate out of control and cause environmental damage and, if they escape from a research laboratory or containment facility, threaten public health. For this reason, they pose a unique risk unlike those associated with toxic chemicals or radioactive materials. Synthetic biology research also raises new issues regarding the degree to which laboratory workers are prepared to engage in such research. Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field, involving the activities of chemists, engineers, physicists, and computer scientists as well as biologists. Many practitioners in these fields have never had training, let alone professional experience, in biosafety.
The most recent issue of GeneWatch featured Lynne Klotz's report on Boston University 's feeble risk assessment efforts, undertaken to assure Boston citizens that its lab, which is likely to be conducting research on SARS and the deadly 1918 flu virus, is acceptably safe. The university and the NIH claimed that emergency simulations supported moving ahead with the desired research. The National Research Council did not agree, concluding that "the model did not appear to recognize biological complexities and reflect what is known about disease outbreaks and other biological parameters." In other words, both Boston University and the NIH had conducted a risk analysis that ignored the most basic information actually needed to assess the lab's risks. This cautionary tale should provoke additional public scrutiny of any new biolab facility. Berkeley's City Council, as well as the governing entities of the other Bay Area cities who want the lab, may want to keep track of what unfolds in Boston — remembering that Boston, unlike the San Francisco Bay Area, is not even on a major earthquake fault line. Considering the current limitations of oversight and the problems of accountability of the various public and private partners involved in the project, it is less than clear what steps they are prepared to take in order to ensure the safety of any new facility engaged in synthetic biology research.
Boosters have heavily promoted the theoretical benefits of synthetic biology to the public and local officials. They need now to be much more forthcoming in detailing the very real dangers attendant to such research, including broadly publicizing comprehensive risk assessments. Potential neighbors, and others who stand to be impacted by any facility conducting synthetic biology research, deserve better from the university and its partners, and from government representatives charged with protecting public health and safety.
Tina Stevens and Becky McClain
Board members of Alliance for Humane Biotechnology
And Jeremy Gruber
President of Council for Responsible Genetics.
In our August 3 feature, "How Safe Is Your Soil?" we misstated the availability of free soil tests in Alameda County. The county provides garden soil lead test kits only to owners of pre-1978 residential properties in the cities of Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville, and Oakland.
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