You may see synthetic biology (or more properly a synthetic organism) referred to as ‘Synthia’. The term was coined (or, for some word play, created) by the ETC Group as they note in their May 20, 2010 news release about J. Craig Venter’s latest accomplishment (noted on this blog here and here),
The construction of this synthetic organism, anticipated and dubbed “Synthia” by the ETC Group three years ago, will stir a firestorm of controversy over the ethics of building artificial life and the implications of the largely unknown field of synthetic biology.
Clearly the ETC Group, which is based in Canada, has been gearing up for a campaign. It’ll be interesting to note whether or not they are successful at making ‘Synthia’ stick. I gather the group was able to capitalize on ‘frankenfoods’ for the campaign on genetically modified foods but someone else coined that phrase for them. (You can read about who coined the phrase in Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s book, Frankenstein; a cultural history.)
The advantage with ‘frankenfoods’ is the reference to an internationally recognized cultural icon, Frankenstein, and all of the associations that naturally follow. With ‘Synthia’, the ETC Group will have to build (link? graft?) the references to/onto the term.
I shouldn’t forget that the ETC Group does make an important point with this,
The team behind today’s announcement, led by controversial scientist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, is associated with a private company, Synthetic Genomics Inc, bankrolled by the US government and energy behemoths BP and Exxon. Synthetic Genomics recently announced a $600 million research and investment deal with Exxon Mobil in addition to a 2007 investment from BP for an undisclosed amount. Venter, who led the private sector part of the human genome project ten years ago, has already applied for patents related to Synthia’s technology.
In a possibly related (to the ETC Group) statement, the National Farmers Union (NFU) had this to say (from the May 22, 2010 news item on CBC News),
The National Farmers Union says the development of a synthetic cell could lead to worrisome, long-term consequences.
“This new technology raises serious concerns about who controls it, what it will be used for, and its potential impact,” [Terry] Boehm [president, NFU] said.
There are two things I want to note. First, the concerns raised by the ETC Group, the NFU, and others in Canada and across the globe are important and require discussion. Second, all of the parties involved business interests, civil society groups, scientists, government agencies, etc. work independently and together (formally and informally) to promote their interests.
In a related note: In a May 23, 2010 CBC news item (published on Sunday during a long weekend),
The government is looking for ways to monitor online chatter about political issues and correct what it perceives as misinformation.
The move started recently with a pilot project on the East Coast seal hunt. A Toronto-based company called Social Media Group has been hired to help counter some information put forward by the anti-sealing movement.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has paid the firm $75,000 “to monitor social activity and help identify … areas where misinformation is being presented and repeated as fact,” Simone MacAndrew, a department spokesperson, said in an email.
The firm alerts the government to questionable online comments and then employees in Foreign Affairs or the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who have recently been trained in online posting, point the authors to information the government considers more accurate.
It appears to be just the beginning. [emphases mine]
(Digression alert! Does this mean I’ll be able to easily get more information about nanotechnology research in Canada, about the national institute, about nanomaterials, about proposed regulatory frameworks, etc.?)
I have to admit to being suspicious about this ‘information initiative’ when the announcement appears to have been made in an email during a holiday weekend. As well, it seems a bit schizoid given the government’s ban (I’ve commented about that here) on direct communication between journalists and scientists working for Environment Canada. So, the government will contact us if they think we have it wrong but a journalist can’t directly approach one of their scientists to ask a question.
Returning to my main focus, the impact that all these groups with their interests, by turns competitive and collegial, will have on the synthetic biology debate is impossible to evaluate at this time. It does seem that much of the framing for the discussion has been predetermined by various interest groups while the rest of us have remained in relative ignorance. I think the ‘pre-framing’ is inevitable given that most of us would not be interested in engaging in a discussion about developments which were largely theoretical, until recently.
For those who are interested in learning about the science and the debates, check out the Oscillator here. She notes that we’ve had some parts of this discussion as early as the 19th century,
My ScienceBlogs colleague PZ Myers compares the synthetic genome to Wöhler’s chemical synthesis of urea in 1828. In the 19th century, scientists debated whether or not the chemicals that make up living cells–organic chemistry–had to be made by a cell possessing a “vital spark” or could be made by humans in a test tube. By synthesizing urea from ammonium cyanate, Wöhler broke down some of the mysticism associated with living cells. From that point on, organic chemistry stopped being magic and became a science.
Does the Venter Institute’s achievement show that life is just chemicals? I don’t think so …