Syngenta, Chinese Academy of Sciences to Collaborate on Biotech Research
Tyson and Syntroleum to Develop Renewable Synthetic Fuels Plants

Scientists Call for Global Push to Advance Research in Synthetic Biology; Fuels One Output

Seventeen leading scientists from different disciplines ranging from materials engineering to molecular biophysics issued a statement urging a broad global research effort into synthetic biology—the construction or redesign of biological systems components that do not naturally exist, by combining the engineering applications and practices of nanoscience with molecular biology.

The “Ilulissat Statement”, issued at the inaugural meeting of the Kavli Futures Symposium in Ilulissat, Greenland, calls for an international effort to advance synthetic biology that would not only propel research, but do so while developing protective measures against accidents and abuses of synthetic biology.

The early twenty-first century is a time of tremendous promise and tremendous peril. We face daunting problems of climate change, energy, health, and water resources. Synthetic biology offers solutions to these issues: microorganisms that convert plant matter to fuels or that synthesize new drugs or target and destroy rogue cells in the body.

As with any powerful technology, the promise comes with risk. We need to develop protective measures against accidents and abuses of synthetic biology. A system of best practices must be established to foster positive uses of the technology and suppress negative ones. The risks are real, but the potential benefits are truly extraordinary.

The statement calls for a six-point program on two fronts:

Foundational Research

  1. Support the development of hardware platforms for synthetic biology.

  2. Support fundamental research exploring the software of life, including its interaction with the environment.

  3. Support nanotechnology research to assist in the manufacture of synthetic life and its interfacing with the external world.

Societal Impacts and Applications

  1. Support programs directed to address the most pressing applications, including energy and health care.

  2. Support the establishment of a professional organization that will engage with the broader society to maximize the benefits, minimize the risks, and oversee the ethics of synthetic life.

  3. Develop a flexible and sensible approach to ownership, sharing of knowledge, and regulation, that takes into account the needs of all stakeholders.

The statement’s recommendations include creation of a professional organization that will engage with the broader society to maximize the benefits, minimize the risks, and oversee the ethics of synthetic life.

A few recent developments by synthetic biology companies focused on fuels include:

  • Synthetic Genomics entered a long-term research and development partnership with BP, initially focused on enhancing or increasing production of subsurface hydrocarbons. (Earlier post.)

  • LS9 Inc., a startup founded in 2005 to apply synthetic biology technology to production of proprietary biofuels, launched in 2007. LS9 is developing “Renewable Petroleum” biofuels. (Earlier post.)

  • Amyris Biotechnologies, Inc., a privately-held company applying advances in synthetic biology to produce high-value pharmaceuticals, fine chemicals and biofuels, raised $20 million in a first round of venture funding. (Earlier post.)

Signatories of the Ilulissat Statement
Name Institution
Robert Austin Princeton University
Princeton, USA
Philip Ball Nature
London, United Kingdom
Angela Belcher Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, USA
David Bensimon Ecole Normale Superieure
Paris, France
Steven Chu Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Berkeley, USA
Cees Dekker Delft University of Technology
Delft, The Netherlands
Freeman Dyson Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, USA
Drew Endy Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, USA
Scott Fraser California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, USA
John Glass J. Craig Venter Institute
Rockville, USA
Robert Hazen Carnegie Institution of Washington
Washington, USA
Joe Howard Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics
Dresden, Germany
Jay Keasling University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, USA
Hiroaki Kitano The Systems Biology Institute, and Sony Computer Science Laboratories
Paul McEuen Cornell University
Ithaca, USA
Petra Schwille TU Dresden
Dresden, Germany
Ehud Shapiro Weizman Institute of Science
Rehovot, Israel
Julie Theriot Stanford University
Stanford, USA



Why is the issue of ownership of synthetic life buried & only mentioned in the final & sixth point. & no seventh point made to address the issue of synthetic life RIGHTS & ethics.

Surely present human lifeforms(& corporations) want to establish their economic grasp on synthetic life quickly. Mention of synthetic life ethics & RIGHTS would certainly slow that process.

Already present human lifeforms(& corporations) have established preliminary ownership rules over & about DNA modified lifeforms in the court system without ethics raising its head too far out of societies' waters. What a good time to press this initial advantage to cover synthetic life ownership in a prepositional phrase....BEFORE such sticky issues of RIGHTS & life ethics ever gets brought up.


These brave business people might want to consult with the "frankenstein food" crowd first. The field of plant bioengineering is moribund thanks to their PR stunts.


GM foods are still around, its that they lack public acceptance.

Synthetic Biology (or biorobotics) has a huge potential future, from making synthetic single celled organisms that make fuel all the way up to superhuman children and pet dragons! Some initial problems I think need to be conquered: before they can really go crazy with this stuff they need to develop a synthetic genetic system that has a much lower rate of mutation then natural life: don’t want this things getting out and evolving!


@ litesong

The issue with getting ahead of rights & ethics seems to me to be that either humanity, or at least America (where I have always lived and must base my opinions) is more reactive than proactive. That is in part why global warming is such a tough sell to some people; proponents are trying to head disaster off at the pass, however a lot of people say if it ain't broke don't fix it, but don't realize that by the time it's obviously broken, it may be too late for humanity to repair.

Then there's the issue that if people aren't allowed to patent their synthetic life, that it may slow industrial motivation. Then again owning a life form, especially if made sentient or if the owner is liable for any damage it does, isn't going to fly for long. Hmmm.

The comments to this entry are closed.