Jim Thomas of the ETC Group has just posted a well reasoned article on the Guardian website on the challenges of defining the the emerging technology of “synthetic biology”. The article is the latest in a series of exchanges addressing the potential risks of the technology and its effective regulation.
Alleged use of synthetic biology challenged
At the end of May, the New York Times published a piece on the Belgian company Ecover – a household cleaning and personal care products company that’s heavily focused on sustainability – that highlighted the company’s decision to move from using palm oil to an algal oil allegedly derived from synthetic biology. In response, 17 groups publicly petitioned Ecover to reconsider their decision to use a synthetic biology-derived product. Led by the ETC Group and including signatories from groups such as Consumers Union and Friends of the Earth, the open letter claimed that a combination of unknown risks, the lack of a synthetic biology-specific regulatory framework, social justice challenges with their Briazilian-sourced sugar cane feedstock, and the available of alternative oil sources, brought into question the appropriateness of Ecover’s decision.
In response, on June 27th Ecover challenged a number of the claims in the open letter, while committing to a fact-based dialogue on their use of specific technologies.
They also challenged the allegation that they are using a product based on synthetic biology, noting that
The genetic modification process used by the supplier of our algal oil employs the natural mutation process of algae and standard industrial fermentation. Our supplier uses microalgae strains that have been in existence longer than we have, and they work within their natural oil producing pathways using decades-old molecular biology techniques to produce algal oil.
And this is where Jim Thomas in his Guardian article questions whether companies are beginning to play around with definitions to exploit new DNA-based technologies, while avoiding unwanted public scrutiny and regulatory attention.
To define or not to define
The discussion mirrors those that have plagued other areas like nanotechnology for several years. Here, I’ve been quite vocal against becoming tramlined by definitions of engineered nanomaterials that potentially obscure serious health and environmental challenges from materials that don’t quite fit the mould, but nevertheless present new risk challenges. In principle, it should be easier to define synthetic biology in ways that make sense from a regulatory perspective, as the domain of engineering and design is much narrower than nanotechnology. But there are still a number of glaring challenges in my mind, including:
Can definitions be developed that are truly effective in both protecting people and the environment while empowering responsible innovation?
Is it possible to avoid the debate over regulatory definitions being hijacked by interests that are not related to direct health and environmental impacts? And
If a broadly accepted working definition for regulatory purposes is developed, who will be evaluating the risks of those organisms and products that slip through the net, yet may still represent significant concerns?
Hopefully, the emerging dialogue will address these in a responsive, inclusive and evidence-based manner. In the meantime, companies that previously claimed to be using synthetic biology are going dark, and that cannot be helpful in the long run to ensuring the technology’s responsible development.
Note: a useful analysis on synthetic biology and regulation was recently published by the J. Craig Venter Institute: