By Silvia Ribeiro *
When the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) installs its global conference (COP 13) from December 4 to 17 in Cancun, with delegates from 194 countries, it will have on its table a series of topics of enormous relevance, some very controversial and many demanding urgent attention. (here) A point that meets all these conditions is synthetic biology and, within it, the so-called genetic drivers: new forms of genetic engineering to manipulate wild species, which could eliminate or seriously affect entire populations, with transboundary and unpredictable impacts on the ecosystems. (here)
Monsanto, DuPont and many other agricultural, pharmaceutical and energy multinationals have great interest and investments in this. In the case of Monsanto, the owners of the patent for the base technology (CRISPR-Cas9) made it sign that it will not use it to develop gene drives, due to the high risk involved. (here)
Synthetic biology encompasses a series of new biotechnologies for the artificial construction of genetic sequences, the alteration of the metabolism of microorganisms to make them produce substances such as pharmaceutical or cosmetic active ingredients, and even the construction of fully synthetic living organisms, which CBD calls synthetically modified organisms. (OSM). It brings new environmental, health and socio-economic impacts, since most of the substances that are sought to be substituted with synthetic biology - such as vanilla, saffron, vetiver, patchouli, coconut oil, stevia, artemisinin - are produced by peasant communities and indigenous people in southern countries. The synthetic biology industry threatens their small sources of income that allow them to survive and continue caring for the biodiversity of fields and forests. The industry presents its substances, which are excreted by manipulated microbes, fed in tanks with transgenic sugars and semi-slave labor, as natural. Consumers have no idea what it is about, but by labeling natural the industries get a better price and in the process compete, not with the cheap synthetic versions of fragrances and flavorings, but with the truly natural ones produced by farmers.
The CBD houses the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (which regulates transboundary movements of transgenics) and the Nagoya Protocol on access to genetic resources and sharing of benefits derived from their use. Both protocols should review their standards, because synthetic biology raises unforeseen issues and impacts. For example, that synthetic biology reproduces sequences of plants or other organisms, whose genetic information was downloaded from the Internet, without going through any access authorization. In addition, the entire Convention must pronounce on the socio-economic impacts and on how to continue considering the issue of synthetic biology, including the hot potato of gene drives, with high risks and intentionally designed to have transboundary and global reach.
Genetically engineered drives (gene drives) are so new that they did not exist when the CBD held its previous conference in 2012. It is a way to cheat the laws of inheritance of cross-breed species sexual, be they plants, insects, animals or humans. Normally, each parent transmits 50 percent of the genetic information to their offspring. With gene drives, the goal is for the transgenic gene to pass into 100 percent of the progeny, and for it to be distributed much faster to the entire population.
The idea of ensuring that the entire inheritance of an organism maintains a genetic alteration existed before, but only with CRISPR-Cas9 could it become a reality. Few laboratory experiments with mosquitoes, flies and mice are known by two teams of researchers from the United States. Kevin Esvelt, one of the scientists who created the gene drives, has repeatedly warned that they should not be released into the environment, because their intentional or accidental impact can be catastrophic. Even for research, there are no adequate facilities or protocols, as any accidental release could behave, in the words of another of its inventors, as a mutagenic chain reaction.
CRISPR-Cas9 technology is like a GPS with a pair of scissors. The GPS is designed to find a genetic sequence and the scissors (Cas9) to cut it. But those scissors are still active in the body, so when they cross, they cut the information of the other parent and replace it with the manipulated one. If it is designed to eliminate the genes that determine female sex (this is the intention in most known experiments), only males would remain and the species could become extinct. This does not take into account the dynamic complexity of nature and species and may not work as companies envision. But they will undoubtedly cause, at the very least, serious problems of genetic derangement in populations. Can such powerful technology be left in the hands of Monsanto and the like? Who can make the decision to eliminate - or attempt to eliminate - an entire species? For example, for Monsanto, amaranth is a pest. The issue is so serious that it is even on the agenda of the Biological Weapons Convention. Now it is in the hands of CBD to assume the precautionary principle that is in its constitution and prevent this technology from being released. More information on this and other topics during COP 13: www.etcgroup.org
* Researcher at the ETC Group