In an article published in the journal “Science”, a research team led by controversial US scientist-entrepreneur Craig Venter announced that it has created from scratch the world’s first synthetic organism. Yet despite fears that this latest feat in scientists ‘playing God’ presents unprecedented biosafety, security, ethical and legal challenges, the Australian government has no capacity to manage the new risks of synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology organisms are touted for use in agrofuels, agriculture, manufacturing, environmental clean up, medicine and military applications. Friends of the Earth International, ETC Group and others warned in 2006 that synthetic biology presents unprecedented new biosafety, security, ethical and legal challenges. Today the National Centre for Biosecurity at the Australian National University development warned that synthetic microbes could be used as weapons.

Craig Venter’s research is funded by companies such as BP and Exxon Mobil which have a poor safety record. Yet despite the strong industry interest in this controversial field, there is literally no mechanism for government oversight of synthetic biology in the United States, where this artificial organism was developed, or here in Australia where many universities are already engaged in synthetic biology research.
Friends of the Earth Australia are very concerned that the Federal Government is still playing catch up with nanotechnology – hundreds of nano-products are on sale, while the commercial use of nanomaterials in most products remains effectively unregulated.

The nanotechnology regulatory failure must not be repeated with synthetic biology. We simply cannot afford for synthetic biology organisms to be used commercially or released into the environment without mandatory, precaution based regulatory structure in place.

Today’s announcement is a wake up call for regulators asleep at the wheel. Synthetic biology is no longer a technology of the future – it is happening now and the risks demand a strong government response.