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Washington Post

(Washington, DC)
Mar 14, 2012, p. A.4
Copyright The Washington Post Company Mar 14, 2012. All rights reserved. Reprinted
with permission.
Coalition Urges Tighter Controls on 'Extreme Genetic Engineering'
By Brian Vastag

Genetically engineered microbes that might one day churn out biofuels, clean up toxic
waste or generate new medicines need to be proved safe before they are released into
the environment, a coalition of 111 environmental and social justice groups said
Tuesday.
Led by the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth, the coalition also called
for stronger government regulations over "extreme genetic engineering" and a
moratorium on the commercial use and release of lab-created organisms.
"Without proper safeguards, we risk letting synthetic organisms and their products out
of the laboratory with unknown potential to disrupt ecosystems, threaten human health
and undermine social, economic and cultural rights," the coalition said in a new report.
The technology to manipulate the genes of bacteria, yeast and other organisms has
existed since the 1970s, leading to pest-resistant crops, bacteria that produce human
insulin and other breakthroughs.
But in 2010, biologist J. Craig Venter announced that his institute had invented
"synthetic biology" by transplanting the entire genome of one bacterium into a different
species, which then reproduced. While not qualifying as an entirely new organism, the
lab-built microbe did fuel concerns that this technology presented new and hard-toquantify risks.
The White House jumped in, with the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical
Issues recommending in 2010 that federal agencies adopt a "middle course" that
encouraged enhanced oversight and careful consideration of possible risks but no new
laws or regulations.
Environmental groups say those measures don't go far enough.
"The field is evolving incredibly rapidly in the face of almost no regulation," said Eric
Hoffman of Friends of the Earth. "A moratorium puts the brakes on to allow society time
to decide which applications are okay and which aren't."

Representatives of the biotechnology industry say that genetically modified organisms


are already adequately regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S.
Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies.
"I think the report's kind of silly, frankly. It makes no sense to call for a moratorium,"
said Brett Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization,
a trade group. "We've been doing genetic engineering for 30 years, and we've been
doing it safely. People are hyping this as something new."
The burden of proof for safety should fall on companies designing new organisms, the
environmental groups said, with synthetic organisms subjected to independent study
and corralled by "the strictest levels of physical, biological and geographical
containment."
Hoffman said a number of government agencies should help regulate synthetic biology,
including the Energy Department, which funds research in the field; the USDA; the FDA;
and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Work in synthetic biology is still confined to laboratories, but researchers see potential
for advances in energy production, medicine and other fields.
Think tanks are also getting involved in the debate over how to regulate the field. In
2010, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars launched a project on
synthetic biology to push for more research on the risks and benefits of new genetic
technology.
"The more engaged people are - not just the public, but federal agencies, regulatory
agencies and scientists - the better off we are in terms of reaping benefits of these
technologies," said Todd Kuiken, a scientist at the center who is engaged in that project
but was not involved in the report released Tuesday.
Kuiken added that government agencies have done little to respond to the
recommendations made by the president's commission 15 months ago."We approached
numerous agencies, including the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy,
which should be coordinating this activity. They gave us nothing. Literally nothing."
Allison A. Snow, a plant ecologist at Ohio State University who keeps a close eye on
synthetic biology but was not involved in the new report, said, "The technology is
outpacing the research needed to understand environmental risks. This is the time,
when technology is just getting started, to look at the risks."