111 organizations call for synthetic biology moratorium

March 15, 2012 | Source: Science Insider

Light programmable biofilm made by the UT Austin/UCSF team during the 2004 Synthetic Biology competition, displaying "Hello World" (credit: Skosuri/Wikimedia Commons)

Synthetic biology needs more oversight, and the government needs to put in place regulations specific for this field, according to 111 environmental, watchdog, and other organizations, which have released a report with specific recommendations for managing new biological techniques for building and remaking organisms for research and commercial uses ranging from medicines to biofuels.

Calling synthetic biology “an extreme form of genetic engineering,” the report said that current practices for regulating and assessing biotechnology were inadequate. The group, which includes the watchdog organizations ETC Group and Friends of the Earth, wants to ban the use of synthetic biology to manipulate the human genome or the genomes of microbes in and on the human body.

But Brent Erickson from the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) calls the report absurd. “[With] the shrillness of its tone and its lack of objectivity, I don’t’ think it’s really helpful to policy-makers and the public.”

He points out that synthetic biology is in many ways a relabeling and evolution of biotechnology that’s been going on for decades. While he agrees that existing rules and regulations may eventually need upgrading, “it’s not like we don’t have experience in dealing with those organisms,” he points out. “There are a lot of safeguards in place.”