Synthetic Biology’s Role in Agrofuels

By  |  29 / April / 2008

This post is also available in: Spanish

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 from scratch by combining nanoscale biology, computing, and engineering. "Using a laptop computer, published gene sequence information, and mail-order synthetic DNA, just about anyone has the potential to construct genes or entire genomes from scratch," informed the ETC Group in a recent report. "At the core of synthetic biology is the belief that all the parts of life can be made synthetically, engineered, and assembled to produce working organisms."

A small but growing number of scientist-entrepreneurs are boarding the synbio train and forming companies with public funding and risk capital, like LS9, Amyris, and Codon Devices. They claim that synthetic biology can be used to create artificial organisms that will do everything, from eradicating malaria to producing fuel.

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

"Amyris Biotechnologies is developing a large-scale fermentation process to renewably produce biofuels. We are developing a gasoline substitute that contains more energy than ethanol, will result in lower cost and less polluting biofuel blends, and is fully compatible with today’s cars and the existing petroleum infrastructure. We are also developing a diesel substitute that can achieve lower costs and much greater scale than vegetable oil based biodiesels … Both our gasoline substitute and our diesel substitute will be made from the same feedstocks and production plants that are used to make ethanol," states the Amyris Biotechnologies website.

Made-to-order organisms could just as likely become bioweapons factories as fuel and medicine factories … Experience with agricultural biotechnology has shown that a promise of precise control is not enough to contain genetically modified organisms once they’re in farmers’ fields. Synthetic biology’s living organisms, systems, and devices will be just as difficult to contain and control.

There are enormous complexities involved with the creation of novel life forms: How could their accidental release into the environment be prevented or the effects of their intentional release be evaluated? Who will control them, and how? How will research be regulated? Should we engineer life in this way when the environmental and human safety questions are so vast? Who should decide?

Source: ETC Group

The most prominent and outspoken of these new techno capitalists is the polemic J. Craig Venter, who became famous by sequencing the human genome with his company Celera Genomics. In 2007 Time magazine included him in their list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

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 startup capital came from Mexican billionaire Alfonso Romo. Venter’s nonprofit Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives receives funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Genomes to Life program, which develops the use of plants and microbes for varied tasks, such as generating energy and removing carbon from the atmosphere.

"The increasing use of fossil fuels is contributing to the environmental challenges of global climate change; air, water, and land pollution; and loss of biological diversity," says the Synthetic Genomics website. "We are developing novel genomic-driven strategies to address global energy and environmental challenges. Recent advances in the field of synthetic genomics present seemingly limitless applications that could revolutionize production of energy, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals and enable carbon sequestration and environmental remediation … we are uniquely positioned to ignite a biological industrial 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, which have accused him of bio-piracy. In 2004 he sailed to the Bermudas, México, Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, and the biodiversity-rich Galapagos islands of Ecuador in his 90-foot Sorcerer II floating laboratory, collecting microbes to study. Participants in the Social Forum of the Americas, celebrated that year in Ecuador, denounced the expedition as an attempt to patent and privatize biodiversity.

"Venter’s expedition in search of microbes calls attention to serious unresolved issues regarding the sovereignty over genetic resources and their privatization through patenting," said Silvia Ribeiro of the ETC Group. "Venter’s pretension is one of the major threats of privatization and commodification of life, which is why we oppose his presence here and in the rest of the region’s countries," declared Lucía Gallardo of Acción Ecológica, an environmental group based in Ecuador.

The idea of novel synthetic organisms raises warning flags to critics of biotechnology. The ETC Group is concerned that synthetic biology is moving full speed ahead with practically zero societal debate or regulatory oversight. "Ultimately synthetic biology means cheaper and widely accessible tools to build bioweapons, virulent pathogens, and artificial organisms that could pose grave threats to people and the planet. The danger is not just bio-terror, but ‘bio-error.’"

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

"Scientists creating new life forms cannot be allowed to act as judge and jury," stated Sue Mayer, director of GeneWatch UK. "The possible social, environmental, and bio-weapons implications are all too serious to be left to well-meaning but self-interested scientists. Proper public debate, regulation, and policing is needed."

A Radically Different Paradigm

In order to address the energy crisis and global warming we do not need high tech solutions, say agrofuel critics. They maintain that what is needed instead is to confront the economic system and provide ecological alternatives based on locally-based development.

"There is simply no escape: we have to reduce energy consumption if we are to survive on this planet," states GRAIN. "There is no point asking the car companies to make their cars a bit more energy-efficient if the number of cars is going to double and if public policies continue to be geared toward making this happen. There is no point asking people to turn off their lights if the entire economic system continues to be oriented solely toward moving goods around the globe from countries where the corporations producing them can obtain the highest profit margins." They continue, "To address climate change, we don’t need agrofuel plantations to produce fuel energy. Instead, we need to turn the industrial food system upside down. We need policies and strategies to reduce the consumption of energy and to prevent waste. Such policies and strategies already exist and are being fought for."

"Billions of dollars are being spent on a technology which clearly will not be available within the crucial time left to avoid the worst impacts of global warming … Cellulosic ethanol is not close to becoming commercially available, and faces technical barriers that may not be overcome in the foreseeable future.

"There is no evidence that large-scale second-generation agrofuels would be either sustainable or climate-friendly. Furthermore, the promises being made by industry about future second generation biofuels are being used by governments, including the European Union, to promote agrofuel production."

Source: "Agrofuels: Toward a Reality Check"

La Vía Campesina, which represents tens of millions of peasants and small farmers in 56 countries, proposes small-scale production, which does not require industrial farm machinery that uses energy and burns fossil fuel; organic farming, which does not use fossil fuel-based toxic agrochemicals; and truly sustainable energy alternatives, like solar.

According to the organization, it is necessary to radically change the ways in which we produce, commercialize, and consume food, under the conception that small scale sustainable agriculture and consumption of local foods can revert environmental devastation and provide sustenance for millions of rural and urban families that currently have no access to food in sufficient quantity and quality.

"Sustainable small-scale farming and local food consumption will reverse the actual devastation and support millions of farming families," declared Vía Campesina at the UN conference on climate change in Bali in December 2007. "Agriculture can also contribute to cool down the earth by using farm practices that store CO2 and reduce considerably the use of energy on farms."

According to Altieri and Holt-Giménez, "The only way to stop global warming is to promote small-scale organic agriculture and decrease the use of all fuels, which requires major reductions in consumption patterns and development of massive public transportation systems, areas that the University of California should be actively researching and that BP and the other biofuel partners will never invest one penny toward."

GRAIN concurs: "In agriculture and food production, they mean orienting production toward local rather than international markets; they mean adopting strategies to keep people on the land, rather than throwing them off; they mean supporting sustained and sustainable approaches for bringing biodiversity back into agriculture; they mean diversifying agricultural production systems, using and expanding on local knowledge; and they mean putting local communities back in the driving seat of rural development."

They continue, "Such policies and strategies imply the use and further development of agro-ecological technologies to maintain and improve soil fertility and organic matter and in the process to sequester carbon dioxide in the soil rather than expelling it into the atmosphere. And they also require a head-on confrontation with the global agro-industrial complex, now stronger than ever, that is driving with its agrofuel agenda in exactly the opposite direction."

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