Environmental campaigners are urging developing countries to include the rapidly advancing science of synthetic biology — the building of new organisms using genes as biological 'bricks' — in their biosafety legislation for genetically modified (GM) crops.
They are concerned that synthetic biology products based on novel organisms could be developed, and commercialised, before there is regulation and understanding of their environmental and societal impacts.
With many countries in the midst of legislating for the arrival of GM crops, now is the time to include frameworks for dealing with synthetic organisms as well, according to Eric Hoffman, a biotechnology expert at Friends of the Earth (FoE), the environmental campaigning organisation.
His comments came after FoE sent a letter, signed by 58 organisations from 22 countries, to the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, complaining that its recent report on synthetic biology had proposed inadequate measures for controlling the technology and was failing to exercise the 'precautionary principle'.
The letter, dated 16 December 2010, calls for a moratorium on the production and commercial release of synthetic organisms, but it accepts further research so long as safety is ensured.
Hoffman said that, as with GM organisms, legislation is lagging far behind the technology.
"Countries should start legislating for synthetic biology products now to prepare for the near future," he told SciDev.Net. "The UN should be a key player, but legislation has to start at all levels, down to the local."
Synthetic biology hit the headlines in May last year when Craig Venter, the US human genome pioneer and entrepreneur, announced the first artificial life form.
The do-it-yourself nature of the new technology, combined with cheap access to materials via the Internet, means individuals could start producing synthetic organisms in low-cost facilities without proper regulations, Hoffman added.
"Often, these researchers are engineers with little training in ecology, evolutionary biology or bioethics. Compulsory licensing could ensure they get such training and their work regulated in a meaningful manner."
The US Presidential Commission's report, issued last month (16 December), on how to oversee and control research on synthetic biology, disappointed those who had hoped for a precautionary principle. Instead it suggests self-regulation and a 'prudent vigilance' approach.
To address the uncertainty about risks, it calls for better coordination and transparency, ongoing risk analysis, public engagement, and ethics education for researchers.
Rob Carlson, principal of Biodesic, a US-based biotechnology consulting company, said there is an opportunity for developing countries to make a start with 'do-it-yourself' synthetic biology.
The experience of students participating in a worldwide synthetic biology competition, International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM), suggests that "much progress is possible in a variety of environments". In the 2010 competition, teams from China, India, Mexico, Panama and South Africa won awards.
James Wagner, president of Emory University and a vice-chair of the US Presidential Commission, said: "The fact that this technology is accessible and that portions of it can already be performed in modest laboratories does mean that there are opportunities to be real players in this economy".
But he added that some of the most significant work still requires high-tech facilities.
Developed nations have a responsibility to people who still do not have a voice in the debate, he said, but he maintained that some of the benefits are more immediate than the risks.
"There is a prospect that we could increase the rate and decrease the costs of discovery and production of biological products, vaccines and medicines, perhaps even to the point that the pharmaceutical industry finds it more economical, or even profitable, to produce medications to address some of the neglected diseases," he said.
"There needs to be a strong partnership and collaboration among nations in deciding how to use this technology."