"I think this is going to become the foundational technology of the 21st century" - that was the triumphant message with which Tom Knight of MIT brought Synthetic Biology 3.0 to an end today. An engineering generalist who moved from artificial intelligence to artificial life, it was Knight who, along with Drew Endy, developed the concept of biobricks -- snap-together genetic parts from which to assemble Lego-like genes.
'The cool' and 'the concerned' -- that was how Zurich-based ethicist Nicola Biller Andorno today aptly characterised the two tribes attending Synthetic Biology 3.0...The cool, in her lexicon, are the synthusiasts, those who regard making synthetic life forms as...like...hey dude, that's like, so cool. The concerned, roughly speaking, is made up of people like us (we've never been accused of being cool). Namely, the dour civil society and social scientists whose gut reaction to making new life forms is -- er.. that's concerning.
Sunday afternoon and Synthetic Biology 3.0 gets underway in high spirits amidst the glass and concrete of the ETH Campus. Host Sven Panke kicked off the conference promising that SynBio3.0 would have something for everyone -- the enthusiasts (clearly the majority), the curious and the skeptics (we guess that's us).
Some of us from ETC are in Zurich for the next few days observing what happens when you cram several hundred synthetic biologists and industrialists into a conference room -- the evolution of a new industrial species? These 'Synthusiasts' are now into their third annual international congress, Synthetic Biology 3.0, each conference named like a software update. Unlike software updates however it's not clear they've really ironed out the major bugs in the intervening years.
When patents on Terminator seeds first came to light nine years ago, even the most jaded among us were stunned by the audacious corporate greed manifested by this novel (and complex) gene engineering technique. Terminator refers to crops that are genetically modified to render sterile seeds at harvest - the equivalent of a 'biological patent' that would prevent farmers from re-planting harvested seeds and guarantee perpetual sales for the commercial seed industry. 'Suicide seeds' are surely one of the most immoral applications of genetic engineering and an egregious use of taxpayer money.
Last week the US Justice Department (DOJ) gave the green light for Monsanto's $1.5 billion takeover of the world's largest cotton seed company, Delta & Pine Land (D&PL) -- the company that has long vowed to commercialize Terminator seeds (more on that below). The so-called "anti-trust" regulators approved the deal with a number of conditions. For instance, Monsanto must sell Stoneville, one of its largest cotton seed holdings, to multinational Bayer. The company must also agree to license its biotech traits to major competitors like Syngenta and Dupont.
In the last few years it would have been fair to "blame Canada" for trying to overturn the international moratorium on terminator seeds. Thankfully if a new initiative in Ottawa suceeds the Canadian government may be forced to change its tune.
A bill to prohibit field testing and commercialization of Terminator seed technology was introduced in the Canadian Parliament today by the Agriculture critic (ie spokesperson) for the NDP party.
Further reflections on EPO's May 3 decision to revoke Monsanto's species-wide soybean patent
ETC Group has been receiving lots of emails and phone calls in the past few days about the defeat of Monsanto's soybean patent one week ago. While most have been congratulatory a few have asked whether this wasn't in fact a hollow victory since the patent challenge was won on technical merits rather than fundamental principles of morality. Will it even affect Monsanto's patent portfolio? One US activist asked:
In the midst of our new fight over geoengineering near the Galapagos, we've got good news over a very old fight with Monsanto... Hope Shand just phoned from Munich to say that the European Patent Office has agreed with ETC's arguments and overturned Monsanto's soybean "species" patent. There is no further appeal!!