A Call to Ban Synthetic Biology

More than 100 environmental policy organizations call for greater oversight and regulation of synthetic biology.

Mar 15, 2012
Edyta Zielinska

Biofilm from the 2004 Synthetic Biology competition WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, JEFF TABOR AND RANDY RETTBERG

On Tuesday (March 12), the environmental activist organization Friends of the Earth called for a moratorium on the release of synthetic biology organisms or products into the environment. The call came from a report put together by 111 environmental organizations from around the world.

In 2010 the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethics  found that synthetic biology was still in its infancy and therefore posed few risks. While the Commission did release a list of 18 recommendations for the development and oversight of the field, many have yet to be completed, despite a 2012 deadline for some of the recommendations. Friends of the Earth, which calls synthetic biology “extreme genetic engineering,” prepared its report in response to the assertion that little or no government regulation was needed for this type of research.

A spokesperson for the Presidential Commission told ScienceInsider that it welcomes the new input from Friends of the Earth. But Brent Erickson from the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) told ScienceInsider that the environmental organizations’ report lacked objectivity and a clear understanding of synthetic biology. "It's not like we don't have experience in dealing with those organisms," he said. "There are a lot of safeguards in place."

In response, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which has been tracking the government’s progress on the Commission’s recommendations, put out a call for public input, launching a survey that addresses the ethical, legal, and social implications of synthetic biology.