Synbio bugs

March 2016

Back in 2010, the first 'creation' of a 'synthetic' organism was announced [1].

The 'synthetic organism' was mycoplasma, the smallest known cell, many times smaller than a bacterium.  Like all such microbes, mycoplasma don't have a defined cell nucleus like higher organisms, but have a single DNA-bearing structure ('chromosome').

What was actually synthesised was replica DNA of a sample mycoplasma.  This had been manufactured in computer-designed chunks, then assembled into a chromosome in yeast cells and inserted into a mycoplasma cell whose chromosome had been extracted.  The synbio-bug grew much as usual.


This technique offered promises of cheap, microbe-based pharmaceuticals, fuels and environmental clean-up systems.  However, as one professor of bio-ethics said 
"This work has proceeded without any real regulation at all. The bad guys are out there.  Weaponising all sorts of things will be much, much easier."
By 2014, 'synthetic biology' had come to mean a whole bag of molecular tricks which, when applied to microbes managed somehow to create 'natural' products on an industrial scale [2].  Suddenly, consumers found themselves threatened with (unlabelled) 'synbio' food additives such as vanillin-flavouring, sweeteners, scents, and fungicides for food and crops use. 

The big money, however, will come from synbio fuels and industrial chemicals.  And all these natural synthetic wee beasties will need to be fed.

Enter synthia to re-jig the metabolic pathways of bacteria to feed off low-cost waste biomass, or even better, photosynthetic pathways so that they can live on sunlight and waste carbon dioxide gas from factory exhaust.

In agriculture, synthetic communities of synthetic microbes are being assembled to sort out the soil we've been killing for decades.  These will be added to seeds and soil to increase crop yields and fight pests: they are, of course, to be marketed as an environmentally-friendly and sustainable "complement" to agri-chemicals.

Already, hundreds of "superior" microbial strains have been tested in thousands of experimental plots across America.

In February 2016, US intelligence agencies added one of the most subtle and versatile forms of synbio technology, 'gene editing' (which makes precise changes in the DNA), to its list of "weapons of mass destruction and proliferation".  The low-cost and technical ease, with which super-virulent human-, livestock-or crop-pathogens could be created by gene-editing, puts it on a par with nuclear bombs, chemical weapons and cruise missiles.

Of course, bacteria would be the easiest to convert into synbio missiles, but killer mosquitoes and DNA-snipping human viruses are no longer the stuff of sci-fi. Indeed, "weaponising of all sorts of things" has moved within reach of the bad guys out there.

OUR COMMENT

 Five short years from mycoplasma with a lego-like chromosome to WMDs.

The biggest danger, however, may still be the inherent unpredictability in every and all forms human meddling with DNA and its sister, RNA.  Sybio products, with who knows what extra unexpected and unwanted qualities are heading for your food, your medicines, your toiletries, your air, your body, your soil, and everywhere else in the world as uncontainable microbes.  With all this being legally developed and funded by democratic governments, philanthropists and multi-national companies, who needs weapons of mass destruction?

Tell the governments in Westminster and Brussels to STOP the unleashing of synbio madness.

Background:
[1]  SAY NO TO SYNTHIA - GMFS ARCHIVE, August 2010

SOURCES:
·         Outsmarting Nature: Synthetic Biology and "Climate Smart" Agriculture, Heinrich Böll Foundation, www.etcgroup.org, 2015

·         Antonio Regalado, Genome editing is a weapon of mass destruction, MIT Technology Review, 9.02.16

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