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Synthetic biology research at the heart of controversy over new national lab in Richmond

on April 3, 2012

In January, when the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) announced it had chosen Richmond, Calif. as the site for its new research facility, the city was all trumpets and fanfare, with welcome banners flying and “I [heart] LBNL” pins fastened to lapels. And why not? The lab’s second campus, scheduled to open in 2016, is expected to generate hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue for Richmond in the coming years. For a city plagued by unemployment, poverty and crime, this is thrilling news.

But amidst all the excitement, some questions remain unanswered, most notably: exactly what kind of research will take place at the lab? The new LBNL campus will join existing federal labs throughout the East Bay, including the Joint Bioenergy Institute (JBEI) and the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), and will focus on biosciences and biofuel production. But it will also house a once-obscure field of lab research that is fast becoming the latest green science craze: synthetic biology. And that has some people worried.

Dubbed “extreme genetic engineering” by critics like Jim Thomas of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, an international watchdog group that researches the effects of emerging technologies, synthetic biology is the design and construction of novel biological entities. This may lead to the production of new kinds of DNA, enzymes, cells and even artificial life forms. It promises to allow scientists to do things like create new, more efficient ways to generate biofuels from sugar or engineer microbes to act like microscopic chemical or pharmaceutical factories.

Jay D. Keasling, associate director at the National Lab, CEO at JBEI and UC Berkeley professor, says that synthetic biology is not so much a new field as it is an advance on genetic engineering, which has been around since the 1970s. “The difference is that we’re trying to make the engineering of biology more reliable and reproducible,” he said in a phone interview. “That allows us to undertake and solve grander problems.” Keasling’s lab recently used yeast that would normally produce ethanol (like the yeast used in beer brewing) and engineered it to instead produce artemisinin—an effective anti-malarial drug currently produced from expensive plant sources. Through partnerships and licensing agreements with drug and chemical companies Sanofi-Aventis and Amyris, Keasling said more than 100 million people per year will get access to the drug that otherwise wouldn’t have it available.

“We focus largely on foundational technologies,” said Adam Arkin, the executive director at UC Berkeley’s Synthetic Biology Institute (SBI) in a phone interview. “Things you do to organisms to make them more reliable, have them manufacture things for us.”

Arkin said that while SBI is more an alliance of researchers than a physical institute, much of the research currently being conducted by SBI scientists at LBNL and JBEI will be housed in the lab’s new Richmond facility. He compared synthetic biology to the work done on integrated circuits back in the 1970s and 80s that gave rise to powerful computer technologies. Natural silicon, he said, doesn’t behave the way scientists want it to because it’s not a pure single crystal. But if scientists normalize and standardize it, it becomes a known structure that operates in a predictable way. It’s the same principle for synthetic biology, he said, but instead of standardizing a compound, it’s standardizing life forms.

For example, he said, imagine finding a microbe in the environment—there are millions of microbes in a gram of soil—that you want to coax into making a useful chemical or protein. Nothing about evolution will tell you about how it’s going to react to that process. Here’s where synthetic biology comes in, said Arkin. “We can break them into little pieces and then figure out how to separate that out from all that evolution has wrought so they operate the way we want,” he said.

The ability to manipulate biological systems with predictable and reproducible results is exciting because it means that some chemicals and compounds only found in nature could now be produced efficiently in a laboratory. Keasling gave an example of this that his lab is working on right now, using yeast to manufacture squalane. The compound is used as a moisturizer in cosmetics and is currently harvested from the livers of sharks. More than a third of all shark species are in danger of extinction, he said, and making squalane in a lab would lessen the need to kill sharks to make makeup and lotions.

While supporters believe that synthetic biology holds promise for the future of chemical, agricultural, and pharmaceutical innovation, the research also raises serious ecological and public health concerns, specifically regarding the unpredictable and possibly disastrous consequences of introducing synthetic or modified organisms and viruses into surrounding communities and the natural world. This parallels similar concerns raised over the past decade about genetic engineering and genetically modified foods—worries that modified organisms could have unanticipated health effects on workers or escape the lab and contaminate wild species.

“It doesn’t matter how many jobs it creates in Richmond, it’s destructive in the big picture,” said Gopal Dayaneni, co-director of the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project, an East Bay nonprofit that conducts research on global ecological issues. Dayaneni spoke to a packed room in Berkeley’s David Brower Center last Thursday night at a public forum titled “Unmasking the Bay Area Bio Lab and Synthetic Biology: Health, Justice, and Communities at Risk.” The event brought together watchdog groups, environmental attorneys, biotech safety whistleblowers and grassroots organizations, and drew over 120 concerned citizens for a public dialogue on the potential effects of the synthetic biology industry.

“What will danger look like?” said Becky McClain, holding up a small glass vial at a press conference for the forum Wednesday morning. “It will look like this.” McClain, a former Pfizer molecular biologist and the first successful whistleblower in the biotech field, said that she became ill after exposure to a genetically engineered virus at the Pfizer lab where she worked. McClain won a $1.37 million jury award in civil court in against her former employer in 2010. In the ruling, the jury concluded that Pfizer terminated McClain because she made statements about matters of public concern, infringing upon her First Amendment right to free speech. She and other advocates of biotech workers’ rights spoke at the panel of the need for more transparency and better regulation.

“The current regulations are completely incompatible with synthetic biology,” said Jeremy Gruber of the watchdog group Council for Responsible Genetics. At the forum he addressed the issue of how the new LBNL lab will be rated for safety. There are four levels of biosafety, specified by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) according to the risk of harm they pose to human health. It has not been determined yet which biosafety rating the new campus will receive. Gruber said these safety levels are based on the assumption that bacteria and viruses act predictably, whereas life forms engineered through synthetic biology may have emergent properties that can’t be predicted.

The scientific territory that synthetic biology is entering into is so uncharted that no framework for minimizing risk has been proposed, much less established. In a 2010 report on synthetic biology, President Obama’s Bioethics Commission endorsed “only as much oversight as is truly necessary,” and determined that the evolving and unpredictable nature of these technologies makes them “not well suited for sharply specified limitations,” rather than requiring any particular constraint.

The lack of federal oversight was especially worrisome to speakers at Thursday’s forum, given that synthetic biology is driven largely by industry interests. The key players in the second LBNL campus—JBEI and EBI—both engage in some public-private financing, with funding coming from companies such as industry giants as Chevron, Dupont, BP, Dow Chemical, Cargill and Exxon Mobil. Consequently, there are concerns that those companies will get to influence the scope and direction of research as well as benefit directly from work being done at the lab.

Keasling said that industry interests aren’t as closely tied in to the research as some critics say, citing that 90 percent of LBNL and 95 percent of JBEI is funded by the federal government. “It’s all part of the UC system, and that puts us at arm’s length of private interests,” he said. “They’ll never get to control it.”

Moreover, he said, working with industry is really important. These laboratories have the potential to create startups and private companies, which create local jobs. “We think this is a great opportunity to foster a new economy around synthetic biology,” said Keasling. “One of the great things about this new campus is that spinoff companies that come out of it are likely to stay in the Bay Area because they want to be located close to the research institution.”

But for Dr. Henry Clark, the Director of the West County Toxics Coalition and a long-time environmental activist in Richmond, the potential hazards of synthetic biology—exposing workers and communities to organisms with unknown human health risks and the possibility of inadequate safety protocols—are enough to make him step back and rethink the LBNL lab.

“I think that was a big mistake,” Clark said about Richmond opening up its doors to LBNL before establishing what sort of transparency and accountability the lab and the city were going to agree on. “We need some real answers, we need full disclosure.” Clark said that Richmond has long endured exploitation and public health perils at the hands of big industry, and the LBNL facility could add another chapter to that troubling history.

Richmond city councilmember Jeff Ritterman, one of the council’s biggest proponents of the new lab, did not return requests for comment for this story.

Richmond resident Piedy Kittrell, who attended the forum Thursday, said this is the first time she’s heard of any concerns over the lab being raised. “I’m shocked at myself for this to have happened—and I don’t have a clue,” she said. Kittrell, who has lived in Richmond since 1980, assumed the lab was safe because the city council is behind it, but after driving down for the forum and hearing the speakers, she has a different opinion. “Tonight I feel like I’m in a foreign country. Is this America? This can’t be happening. Wake me up out of this bad dream,” she said.

Kittrell took a poster from the event to put up in her window so that her neighbors will see it and ask her about it. “I’m going to start talking about it,” she said.

Keasling wants to talk about it too. However, he says, no one from LBNL was invited to Thursday’s forum, something which he hopes will change in the public discourse going forward. “We want to have a dialogue with the community,” he said.

Arkin was similarly vocal about his desire for LBNL, SBI, and UC Berkeley to engage with the public on this issue. “It’s something everyone wants to do—make sure that information is available on demand and maintain in conversation with the community,” he said. “We’re paid by the public dollar, we should be as transparent as possible.”


  1. Jim Thomas on April 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Unfortunately Dr Keasling is being a little loose with the facts here:

    Squalene was once harvested from Shark Livers but most cosmetics companies now harvest it from botanical sources, including rice bran, wheat germ, amaranth seeds and olives. – see for example this announcement from Unilever back in 2008 It is misleading therefore to claim synthetic biology will save sharks – what it will do is impact the livelihood of amaranth farmers (eg in South America).

    Its also a bit strange that he claims that 100 million people will get access to artemisinin drugs that otherwise would not have had access.Artemisinin is grown by farmers in East Africa, China and Vietnam and according to the Assured Artemisinin Supply System ( supply from these botanical sources is currently meeting demand.

    Lets hope he and his colleagues are not so loose with safety – although the recent allegations by whistleblower Paul Rabinow do give us pause to wonder:

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


    Jim Thomas – ETC Group.

    • michael spexarth on April 3, 2012 at 11:10 pm

      To Jim Thomas,
      Please remember to split the difference between what is University Research and what is Business Research and what is Corporate Commerce. There is a big difference between research, reasons for research, and Commerce. You can’t regulate without definition. Who is going to care where the wonder drug comes from, except what it costs when they need it, and who or what is making all that money or causing all that pain? Most scientists in research I’ve met usually just agree with Einstein–” God doesn’t play dice with the Universe”—that is about as far as they care about definition. Why should they? They do Research.

  2. Daniel Goodman on April 3, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    I was at the discussion. I do think a lot of the concerns are valid. If I didn’t know what was going on, I would want answers too. The problem was that they didn’t invite any scientists to address the concerns that were raised. I mostly heard a lot of inflammatory and ill-informed fear-mongering. I hope the Syn Bio community will get a chance to rebut some of the FUD.

  3. Louisa Suta on April 3, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    Jeff thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  4. michael spexarth on April 3, 2012 at 10:37 pm

    Only in Richmond would the residents not only look a gift horse in the mouth—but shoot it.
    Not even in Berkeley, with its zoological politics,would they turn down University Research, Endowments,Jobs, Infrastructure, and Local Growth. Only when something is understood enough to be Created can it be Regulated. I do not wish to live in the Richmond that is the Continuous Urban Criminal Slum. Sure, turn off the future for Richmond, just let us know quick, so we can all plan our getaway–those that can afford it.

  5. J on April 6, 2012 at 7:31 am

    Kind of hard to get too excited when the entire area was built atop the old Kaiser shipyard — there are probably more sinister compounds already comprising the landfill than the new lab will bring.

  6. […] this from Jay Keasling, reported by Megan Molteni in Richmond Confidential: Keasling’s lab recently used yeast that would normally produce ethanol (like the yeast used in […]

  7. […] Consider this from Jay Keasling, reported by Megan Molteni in Richmond Confidential: […]

  8. […] Consider this from Jay Keasling, reported by Megan Molteni in Richmond Confidential: […]

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