By Emily Smith Beitiks
Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory recently announced a proposal to build a facility in Richmond at which synthetic biology research will be a major focus. This news should give us pause to consider exactly what risks this little-known field poses for the environment and for human health.
Last year, molecular biologist Becky McClain was awarded $1.37 million in a whistle-blower suit against pharmaceutical giant Pfizer after she was fired for raising safety concerns about the lab where she worked. McClain was infected with a genetically engineered virus being researched in her lab. She continues to experience intermittent paralysis and spinal pain — symptoms consistent with the effects of the pathogen.
McClain’s story offers an important lesson for assessing a new kind of bioengineering: the rapidly growing field of synthetic biology, which already has been called genetic engineering on steroids.