GREEN ISSUE: Synthetic biology is creating jobs and promising innovations, but critics say it's dangerous and lacks proper safeguards
The biggest target of these activists' ire is Jay Keasling, who directs the JBEI program, helped found the Richmond lab, and has pioneered synthetic biology research for LBNL and UC Berkeley, in addition to starting several companies to take advantage of that research. His latest is Lygos, which he formed in February to develop commercial applications for JBEI's work on developing new fuels.
Keasling tells us that his critics are wrong and that these new microbes are basically just modifications of substances that scientists have worked with for decades and know how to safely handle. "What we're trying to do is make the engineering of biology more reliable, so it's safer and more predictable," Keasling told us.
He dismissed the idea that these new microbes could threaten ecosystems if they escape from the lab, noting that microbes whose genetic sequencing has been altered in experiments over the last 40 years haven't proven to be resilient in nature. "When they're exposed to the environment, they generally don't survive," he said. "They get eaten by the other microbes completely."
But the fear raised by Synbiowatch is that these rapid technological advances could produce a more durable new microbe, and that these scientists are essentially playing God with the basic building blocks of life before they really understand the implications of what they're creating. Does Keasling think it's possible that one of his new microbes might be more of a survivor than its predecessors?
"There's always a possibility, but in 40 years of doing research in this area, that has not been found," Keasling told us.
That's not good enough for Synbiowatch and other critics, who say that it's important to practice the Precautionary Principle — which places the burden of proof on innovators to prove that new technologies won't be harmful to the environment or human health — before this new lab ramps up its research and development.
The new facility is expected to produce more than 800 jobs. Dayaneni said it's understandable that Richmond officials embraced the new lab and the prospect of green jobs, but he called the promises of synthetic biology "a wolf in sheep's clothing, or a wolf genetically engineered to look like a sheep." He called the new lab "a shell institution for a host of corporate interests" seeking to "synthesize fuel in a petri dish" as much to create an economic bubble as a long-term energy solution.
But he and Bassey said the nascent industry isn't focused on the many potential downsides of its pursuit, including the degradation of vast tracts of land and consumption of natural resources in order to acquire the sugars needed to fuel the process. "They will need a massive amount of land," Bassey said. "This is what the progenitors of synthetic biology have failed to acknowledge."
Keasling does acknowledge that to develop large-scale energy production of the new technology — something he said is still decades away from being viable — will indeed require vast tracts of land growing crops such as jatropha that have been developed for their fuel production potential, something Bassey said will displace poor people around the world.
"Farmers are being tricked to grow crops that are only for industrial uses," he said. "Farmers that would normally grow crops for food will now be growing it for machines."
Bassey ridiculed claims that such crops would only utilized marginal lands, but Keasling said the idea is to make use of currently nonproductive vegetation such as switchgrass, using the new microbes to extract sugars from their cellulose. "My hope is the plants will be grown on marginal land and the people who own it will make money from growing it," Keasling said. "In some ways, it's giving something back to the farmers."