Previously known as Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics PSRGNZ - Charitable Trust
Affiliated to the international organisation PSRAST - Physicians and Scientists for the Responsible Application of Science and Technology
As required under the new 2005 Charities Act, PSGR has reregistered as a charitable trust.

 

Click here to view the reply to this letter.

 

3 October 2007

 

Copies to all Members of Parliament; Ministries for the Environment, Health, Defence and MAF; ERMA; FSANZ; Federated Farmers

 

The Right Hon Helen Clark
Prime Minister                                                                                                                    Government Buildings                                                                                                            WELLINGTON


Dear Helen

Synthetic Biology

The Trustees and Members of Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics would appreciate receiving details of the procedures your government has put/is putting in place:

1. To protect naturally occurring DNA from being patented in NZ
2. To limit and regulate the design and development of unique and novel artificial life forms which do not exist in nature and the redesign of existing biological systems to perform specific tasks.

PSRG is concerned by claims made by proponents of Synthetic Biology. These scientists wish to design and construct unique and novel artificial life forms that do not exist in nature. They also wish to use genetic engineering on a massive scale to redesign existing biological systems to perform specific tasks. Synthetic Biology is a broad redefinition and expansion of biotechnology and can be distinguished from current genetic engineering in its emphasis on developing foundational technologies that take the engineering of biology further. It raises serious questions concerning biosecurity, biosafety, bioethics, human, animal and environ-mental health, intellectual property, and the lack of effective safety testing and regulation.

The ultimate goal of Synthetic Biology is to design and build engineered biological systems that may encompass interfaces with the products of other disciplines: e.g. information technology, chemicals, materials and structures, electronics. Such novel systems may be used to produce energy or food, pesticides and fertilizers, be used in or as weapons of war, involve human health or the environment, or in a large range of other fields.

Gene sequences and synthetic DNA are already available by order over the Internet. In June 2006, a journalist from the (UK) Guardian ordered a fragment of synthetic DNA of Variola major - the virus that causes smallpox - from a commercial gene synthesis company and had it posted to his home. Thus, anyone with the right skills could, potentially, construct genes or entire genomes from scratch. Scientists are already experimenting with a view to synthesizing lethal pathogens or simple bacteria, designer genomes, and living, self-replicating organisms. Researchers at the US Centres for Disease Control recently re-created the 1918 Spanish flu virus (Posfair et al 2006). The H1N1 virus - precursor to the H5N1 (bird flu) virus - was estimated to have caused the death of up to half of the world’s population at that time.

We only have to look at the military-grade anthrax threat a few years ago in the US to appreciate the potential for bio-terrorism. We concur with the Editor of Nature (October 2004): “If biologists are indeed on the threshold of synthesizing new life forms, the scope for abuse or inadvertent disaster could be huge.”

Craig Venter - whose company, Celera Genomics first sequenced the human genome – now aims to commercialize artificial microbes for use in energy, agriculture and climate change remediation. To assist in this, the Venter Institute filed Patent Application Number
20070122826 with the US Patent Office in October 2006. Venter is seeking exclusive ownership of a set of essential genes and a synthetic “free-living organism that can grow and replicate” made using those genes: Mycoplasma laboratorium. The Institute has also lodged an International Patent Application at the World Intellectual Property Organization (No. WO2007047148) and listed over 100 countries where it may seek monopoly patents.

Science (28 June 2007) published a report written by Craig Venter and Nobel Laureate, Hamilton Smith, that reports how Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics, has inserted a foreign bacterial genome into the cell of another bacterial species. The report concludes, “…we have discovered a form of bacterial DNA transfer that permits . . . recipient cells to be platforms for the production of new species using modified natural genomes or manmade genomes…” The whole genome of a bacterium that infects goats, Mycoplasma capricolum, was inserted into a second bacterium.

Industry has already stated its position. Rodney Brooks, director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT has said: “Our thirty-year goal is to have such exquisite control over the genetics of living systems that instead of growing a tree, cutting it down, and building a table out of it, we will ultimately be able to grow the table.”

Safety testing and regulation

In 2006, a coalition of international organizations, scientists, environmentalists, trade unionists, bio-warfare experts and social justice advocates called for public debate, regulation and oversight of synthetic biology. Initially, they wanted voluntary self-regulation and inclusive global societal debate on its implications.

This will not adequately guarantee safety or protect public interest for Synthetic Biology, or its various guises. Each product of or process using synthetic biology requires independent safety testing, and regulation at national level, and international co-ordination. There should be societal debate and input on the technology, its potential benefits and/or negative aspects for the public, and on regulation and safety testing.


We look forward to hearing from you.


The Trustees of Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics

Paul G Butler, BSc, MB, ChB, Dip. Obst. (Auckland), FRNZCGP
General Practitioner, Trustee PSRG, AUCKLAND

John R Clearwater, BSc, MSc, PhD
Principal Scientist, Clearwater Research and Consulting, Trustee PSRG, AUCKLAND

Bernard J Conlon, MB, BCh, BAO, DCH, DRCOG, DGM, MRCGP (UK), FRNZCGP
General Practitioner, Trustee PSRG, MURUPARA

Elvira Dommisse BSc (Hons), PhD, Mus.B, LTCL, AIRMTNZ
Scientist, Crop & Food Research Institute (1985-1993), working on GE onion programme.

Michael E Godfrey, MBBS, FACAM, FACNEM
Director, Bay of Plenty Environmental Health Clinic, Trustee PSRG, TAURANGA

Neil Macgregor, BSc, MSc, PhD
Soil Microbiologist, Institute of Natural Resources, Massey University,
Trustee PSRG, PALMERSTON NORTH

Peter R Wills, BSc, PhD
Associate Professor, University of Auckland, Trustee PSRG, AUCKLAND

Robert G Anderson, BSc, PhD
Lecturer retired, Trustee PSRG, TAURANGA

Jean Anderson
Businesswoman retired, Trustee PSRG, TAURANGA.



Signed on behalf of PSRG
Jean Anderson
Secretary


Some sources of information:
www.syntheticgenomics.com; http://syntheticbiology.org. The ETC Group Report ‘Extreme Genetic Engineering, An Introduction to Synthetic Biology,’ January 2007, and ‘Synthia’s last hurdle? Synthia – the “Original Syn” artificial microbe – may have jumped a hurdle that Dolly–the-cloned-sheep never could,’ ETC Group News Release, 28 June 2007, both a www.etcgroup.org,

Ends

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