Do-It-Yourself Synthetic Biology Punishable in Germany

By Bartlomiej Kolodziejczyk

Do-It-Yourself synthetic biology is a rapidly evolving and emerging social biotechnology movement in which individuals, community groups, and small organizations study biology and life science using methods similar to those of traditional research institutions. DIY synthetic biology is primarily undertaken by individuals with extensive research training from academia or biotech and pharmaceutical corporations, who then mentor and supervise novice DIY biologists with little or no formal training.

The movement has become so prominent that many large cities have designated “biomarker spaces” run by citizen scientists and eager DIY synthetic biology enthusiasts. Complete, ready-to-use DIY synthetic biology kits can be purchased online from a variety of sources and savvy scientists have used these tools to alter biological organisms, i.e. E. coli bacteria, plants and more, and engineer them to, for example, glow in the dark.

These developments bring many opportunities, but at the same time present peculiar challenges. The fact that some of these organisms can be hazardous to the environment, biodiversity, and human health cannot be overemphasized. Moreover, inexpensive genome modification methods that are easily implemented by novices could create new channels for bioterrorism, which may be especially concerning given recent terrorist activities.

On 25 January 2017, the Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety of Germany (Bundesamt für Verbraucherschutz und Lebensmittelsicherheit) issued a statement prohibiting the use of DIY synthetic biology and genetic engineering kits outside of the specialized facilities and research institutions.

Whoever disobeys the law by ordering a DIY kit and utilizing that kit outside of the designated facilities will be liable to a fine up to 50,000 Euros in accordance with § 38 (1) (2) Genetic Engineering Act (GenTG). Furthermore, if Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are released due to the use of the DIY kits, the offender can face imprisonment of up to three years or a fine as stated under Section 39 (2) (1) GenTG.

The statement sent a wave of shock through the DIY bio community. The enactment of laws governing the proliferation of biotechnology, such as the regulation of genetic engineering (Gentechnikgesetz – GenTG), ratified on 20 June 1990, is not new. However, recent developments and the growing movement of biohackers pushed the Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety to enforce these regulations. In accordance with § 8 para. 1 sentence 1 GenTG, genetic engineering work may only be carried out in genetic engineering facilities, i.e. in suitable, officially designated laboratories under the supervision of a qualified project manager or researcher.

Germany is not the only state trying to regulate this new movement. A few days prior to the German statement, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quietly proposed regulations that would require any genetically engineered organism to go through a strict regulatory procedure. In essence, the FDA wants to define any organism that a scientist purposefully genetically modifies as a “drug”, and such development would have to pass strict and lengthy clinical trials to be approved.

Europe is generally stricter than the United States in regulating genetic engineering and genetically modified products. In certain European states, the legality of DIY genetic engineering is ambiguous. Germany’s statement may inspire other European and non-European nations to take similar, firm stances to regulate the activities of the social biotechnology movement. Recent events indicate that precautionary measures will be embraced by more nations across the globe.