By Gareth Jones and Mariam Mayet

The focus of this paper is the emerging field of synthetic biology, in particular its implications for the African continent.

Synthetic biology combines a number of scientific disciplines and is generally understood to involve the deliberate design of biological systems, using standardised components that have been created in a laboratory. It has been hailed as the key to a new post-oil global economy of abundance for all. In public, this rhetoric has been backed up by high profile research into the creation of synthetic artemisinin, a vital anti-malarial drug. However, behind the headlines the oil and military defence industries see synthetic biology as the perfect vehicle for the continuation of their power and accumulation under the guise of fighting climate change.

The potential for the technology in the global fight against Malaria is considerable, as are the potential impacts of synthetic artemisinin on the cultivation of Artemisia (the plant that contains the vital natural ingredient) in East Africa, where a fledgling industry supporting thousands of small holder farmers is developing. South Africa was initially heavily involved in synthetic artemisinin and there are currently plans for the development of a national synthetic biology strategy in the country. This is considered in the context of the country’s drive towards a ‘green economy’, with particular credence given to the disastrous implementation of its national biofuels strategy.

Finally, we turn our attention towards the newly established Stellenbosch Biomass Technology Company, which has teamed up with the Canadian firm Mascoma with a view to producing second generation agro-fuels in South Africa using both techniques of synthetic biology and genetic engineering. Our conclusion leaves more questions than answers because of the emerging and secretive nature of the field, but highlights the very significant implications of this new technology and the need for a precautionary and vigilant approach towards it.

Read here.