Synthetic biology: ‘Trust us, we’re engineers!’


There’s no denying that the world faces an energy crisis in years ahead, and the Department of Energy, the University of California, and the world’s biggest oil and pharmaceutical companies are betting billions that they’ll find a quick fix.

But does their fix, which relies on some of the most exciting frontiers of science, pose hidden threats that could do as much harm for the world as the problem they’re out to fix?

Jay Keasling, UC Berkeley’s genetic engineering superstar and serial entrepeneur, says not to worry, As he told the San Francisco Chronicle’s David Perlman, the genetically engineered microbes “will now be made even safer by the thoroughness of engineers.”

Ah. So that’s why they call themselves “bioengineers”! Because engineering means safety!

Oh, really? Just watch the opening couples of minutes of this video [and the rest when you have time]:

And then, of course, we had Fukushima, Chernobyl, and the failure of those just-installed radioactive water pipes at California’s San Onofre nuclear power station — the ones engineered to last 20 years and didn’t even last twor.

This isn’t to denigrate all engineering’s successes. It’s simply to say that when failures happen, consequences can be huge.

And when self-styled engineers are tinkering with the stuff of live itself, we should be asking questions.

Just think about the engineers who designed the Fukushima reactor complex. They were certain, no doubt, that they’d created something that would withstand all known hazards. But then came a powerful earthquake and — well, you know the rest.

But what Keasling and his eager crew are “engineering” is something altogether different, the stuff of life itself.

Utopian claims, dystopian realities

Living organisms don’t live in isolation, but as integral parts of a biosphere far more complex than a mere nuclear power station — so complex that, while humans have lived in it for tens of thousands of years, we are still discovering nuances, patterns, and relationships with every passing day.

But to the engineers, designing genetics is a simple utilitarian task. Mix A, B, and a dash of C, and you get X, the desired property. Then use X to produce Y, and you get $, plus that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from doing well by doing good.

Thus, bioengineers at Monsanto said they’d introduced a gene into crop seeds to create plants that would survive doses of plant-killers that turned everything else that was vivid green into brown, dead brown. You’d have your crops, none of those pesky weeds would compete for the chemical fertilizers or previous sunlight.

Of course nature proved as adaptable as eve, and superweeds resulted, plants that survive the same chemical toxins as the patented crops.

And now we’ve got genes from rival companies in single plants. Not by intention, mind you. Just because genes can jump, even across species barriers.

And to think that Monsanto tried to destroy the career of UC Berkeley plant microbiologist Ignacio Chapela for having the temerity to discover that genes from the company’s patented corn had jumped into native seed stock in Mexico.

Monsanto’s bioengineers said it couldn’t happen; their engineering thoroughness precluded it.

But, to paraphrase another inquisitorial target, Gallileo, “nevertheless they moved.” And unlike the Italian, Chapela didn’t recant.

New bugs and troubled corporate pasts

If we look at agrofuel agenda, we see the bioengineers are planning to unleash novel organisms, assuring us all the while of their complete safety.

On the drawing boards are new plant strains and, more ominously, novel bacteria, engineered to turn plant fiber into fuel.

We’re assured that the bugs are safe, that they’ll never escape the refiner’s vats where they’ll be eating cellulose and peeing fuel.

But consider the safety history of UC Berkeley’s primary agrofuel partner, BP. Remember that little mess in the Gulf of Mexico, the one which is still harming dolphins and producing tar balls laced with lethal microbes.

And there was the Texas City refinery catastrophe, an explosion at a BP refinery that killed 15 and injured 170 others:

Given that history, a skepticism of the enthusiasm of engineers in the pay of powerful corporate interests is a rational response.

And then, of course, there’s all that money the bioengineers hope to make, including those on the payrolls of public university, who, like Jay Keasling and his colleague at BP’s UC Berkeley Energy Biosciences Institute, translate public research into private corporations [and incorporating them, like Jay Keasling's Amyris, in Delaware so as to avoid paying taxes as California corporations].

When investor demands combine with the pressure to bring products to markets, the process begins to look less like disinterested science in the pursuit of knowledge than technocracy in the service of greed, this time painted green.

For now, the bioengineers have the upper hand, with former Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory director Steve Chu serving as Secretary of Energy and patron of the genetic engineers of America’s university and corporations.

But their unintended results of the fruits of their labors could produce ecological havoc outlasting even that created by Fukushima, Chernobyl, and the Gulf oil spill.

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One response to “Synthetic biology: ‘Trust us, we’re engineers!’

  1. GO RICHARD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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