In the last few years, synthetic biologists, by re-writing the genetic code of DNA, have demonstrated the ability to build new viruses and are now developing artificial life forms. In October last year, synthetic biologists at the US Center for Disease Control re-created the 1918 Spanish flu virus that killed between 50-100 million people (2) and last month scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a new version of E. coli bacteria (3). Meanwhile, genomics mogul Craig Venter, whose former company, Celera, led the commercial race to sequence the human genome, now heads a new company, Synthetic Genomics (4), that aims to commercialize artificial microbes for use in energy, agriculture and climate change remediation. It is one of around 40 synthetic biology companies undertaking gene synthesis and/or building artificial DNA.
"Biotech has already ignited worldwide protests, but synthetic biology is like genetic engineering on steroids," says Dr. Doreen Stabinsky of Greenpeace International. "Tinkering with living organisms that could be released in the environment poses a grave biosafety threat to people and the planet," adds Stabinsky.
In October 2004, an editorial in the journal Nature warned, "If biologists are indeed on the threshold of synthesizing new life forms, the scope for abuse or inadvertent disaster could be huge." The editorial suggested that there may be a need for an "Asilomar-type" conference on synthetic biology - a reference to an historic meeting in 1975 where scientists met to discuss biosafety risks associated with genetic engineering and opted for self-governance which ultimately pre-empted and avoided government regulation. Following the Asilomar model the "Synthetic Biology Community" intends to use their second conference (Synthetic Biology 2.0, 20-22 May 2006) to adopt a code of self-governance for handling the biosafety risks.
Open Biometrics is a project by Marc Bohlen that began in 2002, but I'm just now finding out about it... from the website: "The Open Biometrics Initiative challenges hard and fast classification of biometric data. Numerous government and private agencies are working towards large-scale biometric identification systems. Visitors to the United States are now routinely finger-scanned at border crossings. In the near future, no official government document will be issued without a fingerprint or an eye-scan. But are you really who they think you are? The Open Biometrics Initiative cracks open the clean fabrication of automated biometric identification at its root. The machine calculates and prints characteristic points together with their coordinates, type code (ridge ending or bifurcation) and color-coded likelihood as a probabilistic IDcard for your reference."
A couple of recent articles in the New Scientist discuss the crisis of gene banks for specific crops, like bananas and corn. While corn has long been in the spotlight in genetic discussions, the threat to the global banana supply has been much more under the radar. According to this article, the common banana is of the Cavendish variety, originating in India. Due to a pandemic of a banana killing fungus, the destruction of the Indian habitat of wild varieties and the fact that these bananas have to be bred from cuttings since their seedless, bananas are under threat.
A recent opinion article in the Guardian discusses fertility treatments, and their "advancement" that is promising the ability to buy characteristics, ala GATTACA sci-fi narratives. Most interesting is the term "fertility tourism" which I've never heard before. The author credits "the media" for inventing the term, which is a kind of parallel to the more common phrase "designer babies." But, and perhaps more accurately, as the author suggests, "genetic imperialism" is a more needed addition to our vocabulary - as "western women turn to Spanish, Italian and Cypriot fertility clinics, the source of the donor eggs they are using is increasingly likely to be poor white Eastern Europeans."
Gov. James Douglas on Monday vetoed a bill that would have made seed manufacturers liable for damages caused by genetically engineered seeds that drift into the fields of farms that do not want to use them. more
15 May 2006
The General Secretary of the World Council of Churches today issued a
strong condemnation of Terminator seeds and called on churches and
ecumenical partners to take action to stop the technology. The Rev.
Dr. Samuel Kobia warned that sterile seed technology would increase
economic injustice all over the world.
The WCC's news release is available here
World Council Of Churches
Take Action to Stop Terminator Seeds Demands WCC General Secretary
The general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr
Samuel Kobia, called upon churches and ecumenical partners to take
action to stop "terminator technology". "Applying technology to
design sterile seeds turns life, which is a gift from God, into a
commodity. Preventing farmers from re-planting saved seed will
increase economic injustice all over the world and add to the burdens
of those already living in hardship," stated Kobia.
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