The role of synthetic biology in agrofuels

The role of synthetic biology in agrofuels

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By Carmelo Ruiz Marrero

The debate on next-generation agrofuels could be transformed by the new field of synthetic biology. Also known as synbio, synthetic biology goes beyond genetic engineering to create life out of nothing by combining nanoscale biology, computation, and engineering.

The debate on next-generation agrofuels could be transformed by the new field of synthetic biology. Also known as synbio, synthetic biology goes beyond genetic engineering to create life out of nothing by combining nanoscale biology, computation, and engineering.

"Using a laptop computer, public genetic sequence information, and mail-order synthetic DNA, virtually anyone has the potential to build entire genes or genomes from scratch," the ETC Group reported in a recent report. "At the heart of synthetic biology lies the belief that all parts of life can be made synthetically (that is, through chemistry), that they can be engineered and assembled to produce functioning organisms."

A small but growing number of scientific entrepreneurs are jumping on the synbio train and forming companies with public funds and venture capital, such as LS9, Amyris and Codon Devices. They argue that synthetic biology can be used to create artificial organisms that will do everything from eradicate malaria to produce fuel.

"Amyris Biotechnologies is translating the promise of synthetic biology into solutions to real-world problems. Building on advances in molecular, cellular, and systems biology, we are designing microbes capable of producing high-value compounds to address major global health challenges and energy. We are using these living chemical factories to produce novel drugs, renewable fuels and specialty chemicals, "says the company Amyris Biotechnologies on its website.

The most prominent and outgoing of these newly minted techno-capitalists is the controversial J. Craig Venter, who became famous by sequencing the human genome with his company Celera Genomics. In 2007, Time magazine included him in its list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

In 2005 Venter founded the Synthetic Genomics company, which aims to create synthetic microbes that will produce fuels like ethanol and hydrogen. Half of its initial capital came from Mexican magnate Alfonso Romo. The Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, a non-profit entity founded by Venter, receives funds from the Genomes for Life program of the United States Department of Energy, which develops the use of plants and microbes for tasks varied from generating energy to removing carbon of the atmosphere.

"The increasing use of fossil fuels contributes to the environmental challenges of global climate change; air, water and soil pollution; and the loss of biological diversity," says the Synthetic Genomics website. "We are developing novel genomics-based strategies to address global energy and environmental challenges. Recent advances in synthetic genomics present seemingly limitless applications that could revolutionize the production of energy, chemicals and drugs, and facilitate carbon sequestration and environmental remediation… We are uniquely positioned to spark an industrial biological revolution, and we are committed to unlocking the keys to a clean energy future through genomics. "

Venter is already well known to Latin American civil society groups, who have accused him of biopiracy. In 2004 he sailed to Bermuda, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Chile and the Galapagos, biodiversity-rich islands belonging to Ecuador, in Sorcerer 2, his 90-foot-long floating laboratory. Participants in the Social Forum of the Americas, which took place that year in Ecuador, denounced the expedition as an attempt to patent and privatize biodiversity.

"Venter's expedition in search of microbes raises serious yet unresolved questions about sovereignty over genetic resources and the privatization of these through patenting," said Silvia Ribeiro, of the ETC Group.

"Venter's claim is one of the greatest threats to the privatization and commercialization of life, which is why we oppose his presence here and in the rest of the countries of the region," declared Lucía Gallardo of Acción Ecológica, a group Ecuadorian environmentalist.

The idea of ​​novel synthetic organisms raises red flags for critics of biotechnology. The ETC Group is concerned that synthetic biology is moving at full speed with virtually zero debate in society or regulatory oversight. "Ultimately synthetic biology means cheaper and widely accessible tools to build biological weapons, virulent pathogens and artificial organisms that could pose serious threats to people and the planet. The danger is not just bioterror, but 'bio-error' ".

In May 2006 an international coalition of 35 organizations, including scientists, environmentalists, trade unionists, biological warfare experts, and advocates of social justice called for public debate, regulation, and oversight of synthetic biology. The signatories explicitly rejected the "self-regulation" proposals.

"Scientists creating new life forms cannot be allowed to act as judge and jury," said Sue Mayer, Director of GeneWatch UK. "The potential social, environmental, and bioweapons implications are too serious to be left to well-meaning scientists with self-interest. Public debate, regulation and oversight are needed."

A radically different paradigm

To address the energy crisis and global warming we do not need high-tech solutions, advise critics of agrofuels. They argue that what needs to be done is to confront the economic system and provide ecological alternatives based on local-based development.

"There is simply no escape: we have to reduce energy consumption if we want to survive on this planet," says GRAIN. "There is no use asking car companies to make their cars a little more energy efficient if the number of cars is going to double and if public policies continue to be directed at making that happen.

It is useless to ask people to turn off the lights in their homes if the entire economic system continues to be geared exclusively to moving goods around the globe from countries where the companies that produce them can obtain the maximum profit margins. To solve the problem of climate change we do not need biofuel plantations that produce energy for fuel. Instead, we need to turn the industrial food system 180 degrees. We need policies and strategies to reduce energy consumption and prevent waste. Such policies and strategies already exist and are being fought for. "

"Billions of dollars are being spent on technology that will clearly not be available within the time limits we have to avoid the worst impacts of global warming ... Cellulose-based ethanol is not close to commercial availability and faces large technical barriers that you may not overcome in the near future.

"There is no evidence that large-scale next-generation agrofuels would be sustainable or good for the environment. Furthermore, the promises that the industry is making on these agrofuels are being used by governments, including the European Union, to promote agrofuel production. . "

Source:"Agrofuels: Toward a Reality Check"

La Via Campesina, which represents tens of millions of peasants and small farmers in 56 countries, proposes small-scale production, which does not require agricultural machinery, industry that uses energy and burns fossil fuel; organic agriculture, which does not use toxic agrochemicals based on fossil fuel; and truly sustainable energy alternatives, such as solar energy.

According to the organization, it is necessary to radically change the ways in which we produce, market and consume food, under the conception that sustainable agriculture and small-scale consumption of local foods can reverse environmental devastation and provide livelihoods to millions of urban and rural families who currently do not have access to food in sufficient quantity and quality.

"Sustainable small-scale agriculture and local food consumption will counteract the current devastation and support millions of farming families," Vía Campesina told the UN conference on climate change in Bali in December 2007. "Agriculture can too. help cool the earth through agricultural practices that store CO2 and significantly reduce energy use on farms. "

According to Miguel Altieri and Eric Holt-Giménez, "The only way to stop global warming is to promote small-scale organic agriculture and reduce the use of all fuels, which implies reducing consumption patterns and the development of massive systems of public transportation, areas that the University of California should be actively investigating and in which BP and the other biofuel partners will never invest a single penny. "

GRAIN agrees: "In agriculture and food production that means directing production towards local markets rather than international markets; it means adopting strategies to keep people on the land rather than expelling them; it means supporting approaches sustained and sustainable efforts to bring biological diversity back to agriculture; it means diversifying agricultural production systems, using and expanding local knowledge; and it means putting local communities back at the forefront of rural development. "

The organization concludes that, "Such policies and strategies involve the use and subsequent development of agroecological technologies to maintain and improve soil fertility and organic matter and in the process sequester carbon dioxide in the soil, instead of releasing it to the And they also require a determined confrontation with the global agribusiness complex, now stronger than ever, which is driving its agrofuel agenda in exactly the opposite direction. "

* Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is an independent environmental journalist and environmental analyst for the CIP Americas Program ( ), a fellow of the Oakland Institute and (senior fellow) of the Environmental Leadership Program, as well as founder and director of the Puerto Rico Biosafety Project ( Its bilingual website ( is dedicated to global environment and development issues - CIP Americas Program


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