March 10, 2004

Playing God in the Galapagos

J. Craig Venter, Master and Commander of Genomics, on Global Expedition to Collect Microbial Diversity for Engineering Life

The ETC Group releases a new Communiqué today (11.02.2004) that focuses on J. Craig Venter’s controversial ocean expedition that is circumnavigating the globe to collect microbial diversity from gene-rich seas and shores every 200 miles.

J. Craig Venter, the genomics mogul and scientific wizard who recently created a unique living organism from scratch in a matter of days, is searching for pay-dirt in biodiversity-rich marine environments around the world. Venter’s yacht, the Sorcerer II, is now steaming toward the South Pacific after collecting land and marine microbes from Maine to Mexico, Panama, Chile, and — most recently — on Ecuador’s famous Galapagos Islands.

Since 2002, Venter’s Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA) has been awarded $12 million from the "Genomes to Life" program of the US government’s Department of Energy (DOE) to create new life forms in the laboratory that could be engineered to produce energy or clean up greenhouse gases. Exotic microbes — such as those found in the Galapagos — are the raw materials for creating new energy sources and new life forms.

"In the Sorcerer’s wake, governments are left with unresolved ethical and ecological concerns about the human-made creation of novel life forms, troubling questions about public domain diversity and private patenting, and huge gaps in the capacity of society and the inter-governmental community to address new technologies," said Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group.

Civil society organizations in Ecuador were stunned to learn that Venter’s itinerant research team, with funding from the US government, has already completed "extensive sampling" in the Galapagos and that samples have been shipped to the United States for sequencing. Acción Ecológica, an environmental advocacy organization based in Quito, charges that Venter’s expedition is biopiracy because the export permit granted to Venter was not authorized by the appropriate government authority, because there was no public consultation, and because nothing prevents Ecuadorian resources from being privatized through monopoly patents at some later point. They also believe that Venter’s research raises profound social and ethical questions.

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