Biotechnology is portrayed as a panacea for climate change and other societal ills. However the claims that genetically engineered plants and microbes can sequester more carbon in the soil and produce more fuels when processed than conventional methods have yet to be proven. In the wake of these unfulfilled promises emerges a more extreme form of genetic engineering, also touted as the solution to the climate crisis – synthetic biology.
Genetic engineering involves inserting genes from one species into another but the goal of synthetic biology is to create life forms from scratch using synthetic, computer-generated DNA or in some cases without the use of DNA entirely.
Synthetic biology is not a sustainable solution to the climate crisis and has the potential to create an entirely new set of problems. Genetic contamination – where the genetic makeup of a man-made organism effectively roots out or destroys an indigenous species in the natural environment – is a serious threat to biodiversity, the environment, and public health. This happened when genetically engineered crops like corn were introduced in the U.S. in the early 1990s and contaminated entire strains. Synthetic biology exacerbates this problem since no one knows how organisms with synthetic DNA will act in the open environment. They could die immediately – or they could find a niche and devastate ecosystems as other invasive species have done.
In spite of this threat, commercial applications for producing biofuels through synthetic biology are under way. Brand new forms of algae, yeast, and other organisms are being designed with synthetic DNA to produce fuels or to more efficiently break down existing land-based crops to be fermented into fuels.
This research is backed primarily by the oil industry. Additionally, the federal government provides these corporations with hundreds of millions in taxpayer money to research and patent organisms for fuel and then sell that fuel back to the public. Oil companies have already destroyed the environment and should not be rewarded for putting profits ahead of protecting human health and the environment.
The only way to safeguard against possible environmental disaster is to place an immediate moratorium on the release and commercial use of all synthetic organisms into the environment and conduct full environmental and social impact statements on all synthetic biology research. Dangerous and unproven synthetic biology projects have diverted investments away from safe and clean technologies like wind and solar, and energy efficiency. A moratorium would revive research and development of these renewable energy sources, end dependence on fossil fuels and safeguard the environment and all those that depend on it.
Friends of the Earth, September 2010.