Fun with synthetic biology

An enyzme here, an enzyme there, pretty soon you're talking serious ecological mayhem.

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 18, 2007 1:06AM (EST)

In his 2006 State of the Union address, President Bush approvingly mentioned switchgrass as a source of ethanol, stunning millions of listeners who were previously unware of his expertise in indigenous prairie flora. But he had some help getting up to speed. According to "Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology," a report released Tuesday by the ETC Group, the switchgrass section of Bush's speech had been written just a few days earlier by Aristedes Patrinos, an associate director at the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Biological and Environmental Research.

Two months after the speech, Patrinos jumped ship to become president of Synthetic Genomics Inc., a new biotech start-up founded by notorious entrepreneur Craig Venter (previously famous for sequencing the human genome at an earlier start-up, Celera), and partially funded by the Mexican agribusiness giant Savia.

Synthetic Genomics (and boy, if that isn't a title that William Gibson could have dreamed up, I don't know what is) aims to create new synthetic microbes that can do amazing things like cheaply transform agricultural waste into biofuel. The main obstacle to turning switchgrass into ethanol right now is that it is still very expensive to convert fibrous plant matter -- cellulose -- into sugar and then into fuel. But the right magic enzyme could be the killer biotech app. As Patrinos told the Washington Post, "The ideal situation would essentially just be one big vat, where in one place you just stick the raw material -- it could be switch grass -- and out the other end comes fuel..."

The ETC report goes on to note that at Synthetic Biology 2.0, a conference held in Berkeley in May, "bloggers... noted that Venter was conspicuously conversing with Silicon Valley's top venture capital investor, Vinod Khosla" -- who just happens to be a major advocate of ethanol, and who, ETC observed, recently hired Doug Cameron, the former head of biotechnology at agribusiness giant Cargill, as his chief technical advisor. Khosla is a major funder of at least two synthetic biology start-ups aimed at goosing energy crops forward.

What does all this add up to, beside an incestuous conspicuous intermingling of bleeding-edge science, government and industrial cooperation, and the holy grail of cheap renewable energy? Well, if you're standing with ETC, the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration, it adds up to potential disaster. ETC believes that scientists and businesses are rushing recklessly ahead in a pellmell sprint to commercialize new biological technologies that make yesterday's transgenics "old news."

Today, scientists aren't just mapping genomes and manipulating genes, they're building life from scratch -- and they're doing it in the absence of societal debate and regulatory oversight. Dubbed "genetic engineering on steroids," the social, environmental and bio-weapons threats of synthetic biology surpass the possible dangers and abuses of biotech.

In the ecology of civil society non-governmental organizations that stand as watchdogs against corporate iniquity, the ETC Group is a formidable beast. Quite simply, they put out great reports. As I noted last year, you shouldn't ignore an advocacy group that managed to inject both the terms "biopiracy" and "terminator seed" into the common parlance. The new report, like its predecessors, is superbly written, packed with information, and profusely footnoted. It makes for a riveting, if alarming, read.

Which is not to say that it should be read uncritically. The ETC group has a clear agenda, and it is not averse to cherry-picking data that supports its prejudices. For example, in the section of the new report that focuses on energy crops, ETC cites only energy efficiency numbers from a study conducted by well-known biofuel critics Tad Patzek and David Pimentel, without even acknowledging the storm of controversy over the validity of those numbers. (For the best evaluation of the varying data on biofuel energy efficiency that I've seen so far, check out the chapter "Ethanol From Biomass: Can It Substitute for Gasoline?" from a forthcoming book by Michael McElroy, a professor of environmental studies at Harvard University.) There's also more than a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand involved in the sweeping pronouncement that "As presently envisioned, large-scale, export-oriented biofuel production in the global South will have negative impacts on soil, water, biodiversity, land tenure and the livelihoods of peasant farmers and indigenous peoples." That's quite an assertive mouthful, and I can guarantee that there are plenty of people "envisioning" exactly the opposite.

But don't let what side you fall on the biofuels debate stop you from grappling with "Extreme Genetic Engineering." There's much more here than just energy crop enzymes. The central point, that scientists are at the threshold of cheaply and quickly creating synthetic biological organisms for a vast variety of functions, is undeniable. As is the ETC Group's key complaint: that scientists and corporations are charging forward without oversight, without regulation, and without even much debate over how to proceed in a prudent and safe fashion.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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