There’s a new biotech threat coming from Silicon Valley: a private biotech company has hijacked that other crowd funding platform Kickstarter.com in a plan to release hundreds of thousands of glowing synthetic organisms made with an extreme genetic engineering technology called Synthetic Biology.
Having racked up over $400,000 on their crowdfunding drive the perpetrators of this proposed genetic pollution intend to pull off the first ever intentional release of syntehtic biology-derived organism without any oversight, monitoring or regulation. This would set a terrible and dangerous precedent.
To kick back we are doing a little crowdfunding jujitsu. ETC Group has launched the Kickstopper campaign. To start we have launched a petition and now need to raise the money for a long term campaign to stop the biohackers in their tracks. And as part of it we are going to make a comic book - and a bit of history too.
Join us in saving the word from Synthetic biology pollution. Become a backer of the Kickstopper campaign.
A Novel Biotech Threat:
It sounds crazy but it's not fiction: three grinning biohackers from a private biotech company associated with Silicon Valley's ultra-libertarian 'Singularity University’ recently landed on Kickstarter's 'most popular' list by promising to spread synthetic organisms across the USA; specifically, to mail packets of bio-engineered seeds to whoever paid them forty bucks online. The seeds, which they said would likely grow into 'glowing plants' (after all, ‘biology is complicated,’ admit the masterminds) would be the viable and reproducing products of a controversial new technology called ‘Synthetic Biology’ – a field that aims to build artificial life-forms from scratch. A field that has never had a deliberate release into the environment before.
Synthetic Biology (or 'syn bio') can best be described as 'extreme genetic engineering'. it involves designing new strands of DNA moilecules on a computer and then printing artificial DNA and engineering it into living things to hijack the workings of a natural organism. Syn Bio goes beyond the already considerable concerns people have about 'transgenic' genetic engineering and raises further hard-to-assess ecological risks, significant bio-weapons potential and, in the hands of industry, threats to the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest farmers. Billions of dollars from oil, pharma, chemical and agribusiness firms are flowing into the field portending a new round of corporate power grabs on the stuff of life.
Read the ETC Group’sfull report on Synthetic Biology
Risks. Even as the ‘glowing plants’ Kickstarter campaign launched, ethicists from Oxford University released a report that branded Syn Bio one of the biggest 'existential risks'to the human species. It is just the latest in a parade of pronouncements from expert groups – including from thePresident’s Bioethics Commission, government reps at theUN Biodiversity Convention, anEU expert group, the insurance industry and many others. The current consensus is that no synthetic organisms should be released into the environment without 'precaution,' 'prudent vigilance,' regulation, monitoring and other sober and sensible safeguards - A consensus that the 'glowing plant' biohackers are willfully ignoring.
While hundreds of thousands of Americans are taking part in a popular movement to stop – or at the very least, label – the first generation of biotech seeds and plants,111 organizations from around the world have called for a moratorium on this next generation of biotech organisms.
Read theThe Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology issued by a coalition of 111 organizations
The biohackers insist they are totally within their rights to spread bio-engineered seeds from coast to coast. They claim that the US Department of Agriculture has advised them they can avoid regulatory oversight if they used a particular genetic engineering technique called the gene gun. This allows them toexploit a controversial loophole in the lawcarved out by big biotech firms. After all the official pieties about establishing proper oversight of synthetic biology and not rushing ahead with environmental release, the US government appears ready to avert its eyes.
The Glowing plant project think they can avoid all regulation and caution by crowdfunding their project on Kickstarter. They didn’t count on us kicking back.
Incredibly, Kickstarter turns out to be the only entity to have subjected this novel Syn Bio pollution project to any kind of review. Kickstarter has itsown ethical guidelines that are so specific they exclude the posting of projects involving 'sunglasses' or 'bath products,' yet promoting the world’s first uncontrolled, unmonitored and unregulated release of synthetic organisms apparently didn’t raise any red flags at Kickstarter HQ.
We wrote to Kickstarter at length to ask them to de-list the Glowing Plants project . They sent us a dismissive one line reply. We even submitted this crowdfunding campaign to them - they declined it. We have now launched a petition asking them to not allow engineered organisms to be released through their platform. So far they refuse to discuss their support for the project. Kickstarter continues to host the Glowing Plants project and on 7th June will give over 400,000 in funding over to the Glowing plants guys, implicitly blessing the project. Kickstarter was built to help struggling artists, not give corporate biohackers with risky technologies a blank cheque to threaten our ecosystems. We encourage Kickstarter to its roots and disassociate itself from this project.
ETC Groupis a tiny (eight person) non-profit international civil society research group. We don't have the financial resources or rich backers that Genome Compiler Corp. has, but we do have a good track record in stopping destructive biotech projects.
We decided if the biohackers can hijack a Kickstarter campaign to release their glowtesque synthetic biology plants and crowdfund for it, then maybe there are quite a few sensible folks who would be willing to pitch in to fund the counter-campaign to stuff the genetically engineered genie back in the bottle – or at least ensure it never makes it out of the glowing plant lab. So was born the idea of the counter-Kickstarter Project –the Kickstopper. Roll the crowdfunding wars.
As the 'glowing plants' story unfolds, we will be doing everything we can to change the plot. With your help we will mount asuccesful campaign to stop the syn bio seeds We will work to write a happy ending where no Syn Bio seeds leave the lab, where governments see sense and decide to step in. To write that real story, we will work with artists, scientists, gardeners, farmers, activists, lawyers, students, teachers, government officials, UN delegates, journalists and a growing coalition of civil society groups.
We will also publish a historic comic book about exactly how we stopped them - and we can send that to you as a backer of this campaign The comic book will include the work of a talented collection of radical graphic artists, includingShtig,Jordan Worley,Zeph Fishlyn,David Nishizaki,Mensen, Ethan Heitner, in addition to other artists associated withWorld War 3 Illustrated and theBeehive Design Collective.
By backing this Kickstopper campaign, you will not only fund the book, but will also be part of stopping the Syn Bio pollution itself – helping write (and draw) a little bit of history while protecting the future.
Voices of Support:
Dr. Vandana Shiva lends support to the Kickstopper project.
Help Spread the Word about Kickstopper
·Like ETC Group on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/theetcgroup)
·Email your friends about the Kickstopper Project: (http://www.etcgroup.org/kickstopper)
- Sign the petition to ask Kickstarter to not allow bioengineered organisms: http://www.avaaz.org/en/petition/Tell_Kickstarter_not_to_allow_bioengineered_organisms
Please back the project and tell everyone you know to do likewise – help spread the word and stop the release of Synthetic Organisms.
Thank You For Your Support.
The biggest risk is that we do nothing and let the synthetic biologists move ahead with releasing hundreds of thousands of syn bio seeds, setting an eerily glowing precedent that many other commercial biotech firms and informal biohackers alike will follow. If that happens, our story won’t have a happy ending.
The biggest challenge will be the organized money and power behind the synthetic biologists pushing their twisted storyline. Literally, billions of dollars are flowing into synthetic biology from companies such as Monsanto, BP, Shell, Cargill, DuPont, Dow, Total and Chevron. The Glowing Plants biohackers are associated with a commercial company, Genome Compiler Corporation, and some of their backers have deep pockets to fund a PR war. Indeed they have hired a professional PR company to run their Kickstarter campaign.
Indeed, the Glowing Plants Project itself is a PR salvo, as explained by financial guy Antony Evans: "The main goal of our project is to inspire people and awaken them to the potentials of this technology…Kickstarter is a great way of getting publicity around the capabilities of this technology." The ability of these commercial players to change and control the ending of the story should not be underestimated.
Thankfully, ETC Group has a good track record – in the past we have helped achieve international moratoriums on Terminator seeds (genetically engineered to be sterile) and on geoengineering techniques (attempts to modify planetary systems to hack the climate), including ocean fertilization. We have been around a long time and have lots of good friends to call on – you'll meet them in the pages of the book. They also passionately want to see a good ending to the story. And, of course, we're asking you to not just fund and read the result of this publishing project, but to participate in how the plot line unfurls.