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A coalition of environmentalists, ethics watchdogs and trade unions has told synthetic biologists they threaten humanity and the planet by "tinkering" with the fundamentals of life.

The criticism is timed to coincide with a meeting of scientists working in the emerging discipline, which is aiming to lay down ground rules for self-regulation.

Synthetic biology offers the possibility of brand new microbial life forms being created from scratch for a host of applications - benign and otherwise. In 2002, a team was successful in building a functioning polio virus in the lab from molecular raw materials.

Proponents say the potential benefits from synthetic lifeforms outweigh the risks. The Synthetic Biology 2.0 conference in Berkley will end today with delegates signing a set of "community-wide declarations" to provide an ethical framework for scientists to work to.

In an open letter, however, groups including Greenpeace and the Soil Association say the field needs to be reined-in from outside.

Dr Sue Mayer, director of bioethics pressure group GeneWatch UK, said: "Scientists creating new life forms cannot be allowed to act as judge and jury. The possible social, environmental and bio-weapons implications are all too serious to be left to well-meaning but self-interested scientists."

Genome maverick Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics is in the vanguard of firms hoping to commercially exploit the technology. Some fear the techniques developed could easily be applied to waging biowarfare by recreating devastating epidemics like smallpox, or even synthesising bespoke illnesses against particular ethnic groups.

Alex Vlandas of International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility urged the conference: "We scientists must come to terms with the fact that science can no longer claim to be living in an abstract realm disconnected from the rest of society."

Scientists in the field say they welcome debate. Their motion is a first step toward proper legal monitoring. Signatories to the open letter, however, argue that the move will deflect any attempts at outside intervention in the future.

A similar era-defining science and ethics meeting at Asilomar in 1975 has been called the "Woodstock of molecular biology". Some say failings of the self-regulation model that emerged from that meeting led to the genetic modification firestorm of the 90s.®

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