Info Service on Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge (Mar16/04)
Venter Lays an Easter Egg
Over the six years since Synthia the first, Venter and company have pared down the size of the simple genome from 901 genes to a modest 473. While Synthia 3.0 is a step toward what Venter hopes will eventually be the most basic possible living organism, fully 149 of its genes (almost a third) are still a mystery. Apparently it’s alive but its creators still don’t quite know exactly how.
Despite the slow progress, today’s announcement does have important scientific – and eventually commercial – implications. Venter’s team claims that Synthia 3.0 will be the basic technology platform – the essential building block – upon which other apps can be attached. Synthia 1.0 took weeks to replicate while the granddaughter can replicate in three hours. A lot more research can be done a lot faster.
“It’s hard to sort out the science from the sophistry and spectacle in this latest announcement”, says ETCs program director, Jim Thomas, “Craig Venter is the Donald Trump of the biosciences, given to showy announcements and share-raising overstatements - no one can ever be quite certain what he is actually up to without the human ethics or echo systems.”.
Craig Venter hasn’t exactly broken the speed of his own sound, he
– and Synthetic Biology – are still moving faster than government
regulators and ethicists. Venter first announced his intention to
‘synthesize life’ around 2003. Synthia 1.0 arrived in May 2010 just
as the Intergovernmental scientific subcommittee of the UN Convention
on Biological Diversity was convening in Nairobi. The news hit like
a shockwave and some nations called for an immediate moratorium on
synthetic biology until its social, health and environmental implications
could be studied and regulations put in place. The moratorium had
overwhelming support but the consensus required was blocked by just
two countries – Canada and Mexico. Also reacting to Venter’s 2010
announcement, Pres. Obama convened a commission on the ethical implications
of synthetic biology which reported in 2011. Even the presidential
commission’s limp recommendations have not been acted upon. Eventually,
in 2015, the UN convened an ad hoc working group on synthetic biology
that is now preparing recommendations for governments. Venter’s latest
advance will undoubtedly be a hot topic when the Biodiversity Convention’s
scientific committee meets in Montreal April 25 – 30 with Synthetic
Biology already high on the agenda. That body’s views will be passed
on to 195 governments for decisions when the UN body meets this December
in Mexico. At the very least they need to agree to set up a mechanism
for global oversight of the field.