Playing God?

Pub date April 3, 2012

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.”

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.”

Dayaneni compared the new facility and industry to the short-sighted hubris of the nuclear industry before Japan’s Fukushima disaster: “You don’t build a nuclear power plant on the edge of the ring of fire and you don’t build a synthetic biology laboratory on the edge of the ring of fire either.”

Yet Keasling said he and his colleagues are far more aware of these issues and the need for safety and security than activists are giving them credit for. “The synthetic biology community is made up of people who are really concerned about the environment,” Keasling told us.

But McClain said her case shows corporations will often disregard worker safety and environmental consequences in pursuit of profits, often with the complicity of scientists enamored by new discoveries. “There is a lack of integrity and leadership in our scientific leadership,” she said, later adding, “The bottom line is we’re giving the scientific community the right to self-regulate, but that comes with responsibility.”

Keasling said he thinks there is a middle ground possible because “we’re not against regulation, we believe in regulation, it’s important, but it has to be sensible.” He also defended the role that large energy and biotechnology corporations have played in funding this research and licensing the patented new technologies it produces.

“We live in a capitalist system, somebody has to fund this research and science,” Keasling said. “The government doesn’t have the money.”