Playing God?

GREEN ISSUE: Synthetic biology is creating jobs and promising innovations, but critics say it's dangerous and lacks proper safeguards

Researchers in this federal Joint BioEnergy Institute video save the planet using synethetic biology

THE GREEN ISSUE When Richmond was selected as the site for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's huge second campus in January, city officials and community leaders celebrated the "green" jobs it would create, hundreds of them, diversifying an economy dependent on Chevron and its massive oil refinery. But a new coalition called Synbiowatch ( is questioning how green those jobs really are and raising fears about the new scientific realm on which they rely.

It's called synthetic biology, which combines engineering and computer science with the biological sciences to design new microbes that don't exist in nature — living, self-replicating organisms — taking the field of genetic engineering to another level by allowing scientists to actually write new DNA codes and incubate new life forms.

Proponents tout myriad potential benefits from the approach, from medical treatments (such as developing new anti-malarial drugs or creating new viruses that would attack cancer cells in humans) to the creation of renewable energy sources that might eventually replace fossil fuels, a major focus of the new lab and its main partner, the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI).

"JBEI researchers are engineering new types of microbes using the latest tools in biotechnology," notes a cartoonish video on its website ( explaining how these engineered organisms will turn grasses and other abundant biomass matter into powerful fuels — a task that is not yet possible — which can run cleaner burning internal combustion engines.

But the environmentalists, labor organizers, scientists, and community activists who make up Synbiowatch say this technology not only doesn't live up to its speculative hype, but that it is being developed too rapidly and without adequate oversight given its potential to alter natural ecosystems in unpredictable ways.

"We need a precautionary approach to health and safety," Jim Thomas — program manager for ETC Group (which stands for Erosion, Technology, and Concentration) and lead author of the 2007 report "Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology" — told journalists during a March 28 briefing at Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley.

He was joined by UC Berkeley microbial ecologist Ignacio Chapela, a researcher who has publicized environmental impacts of the biotechnology industry; Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria and chair of Friends of the Earth International; molecular biologist Becky McClain, who won a $1.4 million civil lawsuit against her old employer, Pfizer, after blowing the whistle on safety violations in its biotech research; Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition; and Richmond activist Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project. All took part in a conference the next day entitled "Unmasking the Bay Area Bio Lab and Synthetic Biology: Health, Justice, and Communities at Risk."

Thomas said this coalition formed in recent years to counter the rapid development of what he says is now a $1.6 billion industry that has successfully resisted meaningful government regulation and oversight, despite the fact that the microbes it produces "have no analog in nature, and they will grow and reproduce."

With no natural predators, the new microbes could reproduce unchecked. "We cannot allow these corporations to play God. They are not God," said Bassey, who has spent a career combating the false claims and environmental degradation of some of the same big energy corporations (such as Chevron, Shell, and BP) sponsoring this new research. "It's reckless, it's out of control, it's all about money."