Redesigning the Tree of Life Conference Recap

Weren’t able to be with us for Redesigning the Tree of Life: Synthetic Biology and the Future of Food? No problem! Check out this recap, and make sure to make use of the videos and articles we list at the bottom of the page. 


The conference opened with an evening of reflection on the ethical and theological implications of synthetic biology provided by Nettie Weibe, an organic farmer and professor of Church and Society with a Ph.D. in philosophy.  The evening also opened with Bishop Mark McDonald, the first National Indigenous Anglican Bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, and Nnimmo Bassey, an architect and environmental activist who chaired Friends of the Earth International for four years, and who is a winner of the Right Livelihood Award and the Rafto Prize.


The following day provided us with a rich and fascinating education on the current state of synthetic biology.  The first speaker, Craig Holdrege, Director of The Nature Institute illustrated how living organisms adapt to the environments in which they live and thus how their genetic inheritance can be expressed differently.  Jim Thomas, Research Program Manager at ETC, gave us a critical analysis of the speed of development, military and private financing, commercial implications, socio-economic and environmental concerns globally.  One of the founders of synthetic biology and of open source biotechnology, Drew Endy of Stanford University, advised us of the truly remarkable speed of development and accessibility of this new technology and of issues around funding and ownership.


The problems public policy is having keeping up with such rapid change were brought to us by Manoela Pessoa de Miranda of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and by Deborah Scott a research fellow at Edinburgh University who monitors governance of synthetic biology.  Depending on how it is defined, synthetic biology may or may not come under the purview of existing (voluntary) International agreements.  A big difference between the USA and Europe is around whether the end product or the process is used to define the need for oversight.  Very few developing countries have the capacity to develop their own legislation for this technology.


The Friday evening was a public forum in the format of a dialogue between the founder and a critic of synthetic biology sharing their views, acknowledging their differences and looking for areas of agreement.  Responses to the debate by Nettie Weibe, Nnimmo Bassey, and Lucy Sharratt rounded off the evening.  There were about 100 attendees, including students drawn to the event by the presence of Drew Endy.


The final day started with a moving presentation from a Mexican vanilla grower representing a community whose way of life is being destroyed by the industrial production of vanilla.  The rest of the day was spent in smaller roundtable discussions regarding future actions and timelines.  Topics covered included:

  • The Human Genome
  • Gene Drives
  • Bio Peace (vs biological warfare)
  • Food Sovereignty and Livelihoods
  • Diverse World Views (Big Picture Theology)


Each day opened and closed with a reflection on the issues dealt with offered by a member of the different denominations present.


Useful links:


We are currently working on our plan for 2018 on – including next steps re: synthetic biology.

– Anne Mitchell, Chair, Faith and Life Sciences Group.



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