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Berkeley Scholar Raises Alarm on Synthetic Biology

Biosafety expert's resignation raises questions about the possibility of a biological disaster

Synthetic biology — which includes the development of fuels, organ tissue and tumor-destroying bacteria — became a focus of government and law enforcement agencies after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that quickly followed it. The field’s “extraordinary promise,” a presidential commission concluded in December, is accompanied by “potential risks” to humans and the environment.

Even worse, it is possible that such designer organisms could fall into the hands of a “deranged individual or terrorist, who could create and release a deadly virus, said Richard H. Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University. The potential for such a chain of events has cast a pall over the discipline, he said.

A dispute at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, a prominent coalition of biology labs that is led by the University of California, Berkeley, illustrates the potentially dangerous consequences of the research. At the heart of the controversy is a biosafety expert who resigned last summer amid complaints that the coalition was not doing enough to prevent a biological disaster.

The expert, Paul M. Rabinow, an anthropology professor at Berkeley, was hired to evaluate the security and ethical ramifications of the center’s research and report his findings to the top administrators. (The National Science Foundation, which granted about $23.3 million to SynBERC, has required the coalition to include research focused on the ethical, security and social aspects of its work.)

The disagreement at the center — which is known as SynBERC — came to a head over the creation and application of security and disaster-preparedness guidelines.

In internal memorandums, published papers and private conversations with Jay Keasling, SynBERC’s director, Rabinow said that he outlined practical methods to improve security and preparedness, but that his recommendations were largely ignored.

In March 2010, the National Science Foundation reported that some parts of SynBERC’s research on security and risk “appear to be primarily observational in nature rather than proactive and developmental.” The foundation appeared to place some of the blame on Rabinow, who was paid about $723,000 over five years, and said that “a change in leadership will be necessary to facilitate significant progress.”

Six months after that recommendation, Rabinow was replaced by Drew Endy,  SynBERC’s strategic director and an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford. Rabinow stayed on at SynBERC as a researcher until July, when he resigned. Three of his doctoral students also left their research positions at SynBERC.

Rabinow said in an interview that he resigned because he was fed up with what he described as SynBERC’s scientists’ indifference toward their “responsibility to larger society, which is funding them, by entrusting them to manipulate life.” The center includes scientists from the University of California, San Francisco; Stanford; Harvard; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Prairie View A&M University  in Texas.

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