Dr Tom Wakeford: A thrilling breakthrough, but also a frightening one

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The Independent Online

To be "synthetic" in biology used to be the essential complement to being "analytic". It meant bringing conceptual clarity to the study of an organism or living system that had previously been analysed as separate constituent parts. Now Craig Venter has re-defined synthesis to refer to the invention of new forms of life from their constituent parts.

Making cells and animals from individual atoms and molecules is its ultimate, if still fanciful, goal. Like the myth that GM crops would feed the world, SynBio's myth-making could lead the UK Government to waste billions by ignoring wider questions as to the societal purpose and realism of such new technologies.

Venter's announcement may also bring Prince Charles's fear of the planet being taken over by "grey goo" one step closer. The gunk would be an unstoppable 21st-century version of John Wyndam's triffids.

Venter's supporters claim that this goo could halt climate change. I doubt it. Bacteria have been carrying out their own genetic engineering experiments on each other for 5 billion years – that's why antibiotic resistance arises so easily.

It is hubris to believe that we could create some super-photosynthesiser that could simply be injected into the ocean and out-compete its immense diversity of microbes. Anybody who thinks they can predict the consequences should not be trusted.

More worrying, from an ethical perspective, is Venter's commercial interests. For him, innovation happens under the cloak of commercial confidentiality, then reveals the future to the world – this is profoundly undemocratic and flies in the face of the openness and transparency that underlies good science.

Most SynBio research is commercially driven, much of it from an oil industry keen for a quick fix to climate change: Exxon has $600m invested in Venter's business and BP sits on its board.

Two UK research councils – Biotechnology and Biological Science (BBSRC) and Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPSRC) – recently spent £250,000 conducting market research to "understand people's attitudes". The danger is that it will use its results to try to rebrand huge sections of the life sciences as SynBio, thereby side-stepping future controversy.

For a new generation of science policy makers, SynBio is a valuable way of promoting a better public acceptance of new areas of innovation selected by their own in-house groups of technical advisers. Yet it was a deadly combination of secrecy and narrow focus that produced the BSE disaster and the apparent scientific consensus on Iraq's nuclear capabilities.

In their attempt to "prevent us being caught unprepared by another MMR", as one SynBio advocate put it, Venter's supporters are pushing UK policy makers to fund whatever SynBio research they like, under a veil of public acquiescence.

The GM Nation debate in 2003 was genuinely open and transparent. Now we need something like that to address the ethical, social and political dimensions of Venter's new world.

The writer is a director of the Policy Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre at Newcastle University. He is a member of the BBSRC and EPSRC SynBio Public Dialogue Steering Group

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