Synthetic Biology

The term synthetic biology – or synbio – encompasses a range of different techniques and forms of extreme genetic engineering.  Synthetic biologists look at microorganisms as ‘factories’ which can be designed to produce any type of products desired by companies – including biofuels and bio plastics.  The extent of genetic manipulation to organisms far exceeds that of manipulations to GMO crops currently grown in many countries.  Synthetic biologists are seeking too engineer changes to plants and animals, too, not just microorganisms.

Synthetic biology carries high risks which are barely known and studied.  For example, microorganisms can exchange genes with other species – even with plants and animals – and there are no reliable ways of containing them especially when they are used in industrial installations, such as biofuel refineries or ‘factories’ where GE microbes are used to manufacture products such as synthetic vanilla or artemisinin (used to treat malaria and naturally produced by a plant, sweet wormwood).  All genetic engineering is known to result in unexpected mutations, which can lead to unexpected traits.  Because synthetic biology involves greater numbers of genetic manipulations to individual organisms, the risk of unexpected traits and unintended impacts is particularly high.

Biofuelwatch’s work on synthetic biology focusses on the genetic engineering of microorganisms for the production of biofuels or bioplastics, i.e. for uses in a ‘bio-economy’.  We are working closely with a number of civil society groups on this issue and we collaborate with the ETC Group in running the Synbiowatch website, where regular news updates can be found.

Below is a list of articles and consultation responses on synthetic biology by Biofuelwatch

Reports and briefings:

Reckless Driving: Gene drives and the end of nature, Briefing by the Civil Society Working Group on Gene Drives which includes Biofuelwatch, Econexus, ETC Group, Friends of the Earth US, Hawai’i SEED and Navdanya

Mascoma: The biggest mis-spendingof public funds on cellulosic ethanol ever?, Biofuelwatch, June 2016

Solazyme: Synthetic Biology Company Claimed to be Capable of Replacing Palm Oil Struggles to Stay Afloat, Biofuelwatch, February 2016

Beware false promises: Algal oils and other products of synthetic biology aren’t about to save the orangutan…but carry serious new risks, Joint briefing by Friends of the Earth US and Biofuelwatch, February 2016


Cashing in on cellulosic ethanol: Subsidy loophole set to rescue corn ethanol profits, Almuth Ernsting, Independent Science News, August 2016

Biofuel or Biofraud? The Vast Taxpayer Cost of Failed Cellulosic and Algal Biofuels, Almuth Ernsting, Independent Science News, March 2016

Oil: $30-35 per barrel. Synthetic biology diesel: $3,180 to $7,949 per barrel. Game over?, Almuth Ernsting, The Ecologist, February 2016

Re-engineering life?  The dangers of ‘next-generation’ biofuels, Almuth Ernsting, The Ecologist, September 2015

“Jurassic Park” and the Dinosaurs in the USDA, Rachel Smolker, Truthout, June 2015

Is Toxic Algae good for you?, Rachel Smolker, Huffington Post, August 2014

Consultation responses:

Biofuelwatch response to the Consultation on the “Updated report and synthesis of views in response to paragraph 7(b) of decision XII/24” and the “Report of the meeting of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology”, January 2016

Comments submitted to: EPA Workshop for Public Input on Considerations for Risk Assessment of Genetically Engineered Algae, Rachel Smolker, October 2015

Submission of information on synthetic biology too the Convention on Biological Diversity, Rachel Smolker, April 2015