Team:University College London/HumanPractice/LegalBits


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The Legal Bits

The legality of Plastic Republic

We love the idea of letting our Plastic Republic bacteria run wild in the ocean, allowing them to do their waste-chomping thing and set to work on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But as responsible synthetic biologists, we’ll be keeping our bacteria safely within the confines of the lab for now. What would happen, though, if one day we were to take our bacteria outside of the lab? Having discussed the ethical and social implications of our project at our Speed Debating event, let’s take a look at the legal issues surrounding Plastic Republic.

Legal precedents

To the best of our knowledge, no-one has ever carried out a legal release of genetically modified organisms into the ocean. Since beginning work on our project we have become aware of a Canadian company which has made the world’s first application to commercially produce genetically engineered fish. If the US Food and Drug Administration gives the go-ahead, these modified salmon could be farmed in an off-shore fish farm - contained, but with the possibility of accidental release into the ocean. In a more questionably legal incident that took place August 2012, a group of environmental rights activists were rumoured to have released genetically modified stingrays into the ocean - see their video here.

The closest legal example, then, would perhaps be the ‘iron fertilization’ activities in which iron sulphate is unloaded into the ocean in an attempt to encourage an algal bloom which, it is hoped, will capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These experiments are controversial, as the long-term effects of such activities are uncertain, and in 2008 parties to the London Dumping Convention (an agreement to control pollution of the sea) prohibited iron fertilization experiments other than ‘small-scale scientific research’ purposes. In the same year, the 191 parties to the United Nation's Convention on Biological Diversity last year agreed on a moratorium on all ocean fertilization activities. If Plastic Republic shares certain similarities with iron fertilization - the introduction of large amounts of a naturally occurring species, uncertain effects on biodiversity - then it is unlikely that Plastic Republic would be permitted under current law.


Where else might we find guidance as to the legality of Plastic Republic? There are two conventions which might be relevant to release of a synthetic organisms into the ocean. The first is the United Nations Convention On The Law Of The Sea (UNCLOS, which is an international agreement defining the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the ocean. Article 87 of the convention provides freedom to construct artificial islands - but Plastic Republic doesn’t count as an island in the eyes of the law, as an island must be tethered. What if we consider Plastic Republic as a scientific research installation? In this case it might be permitted provided it is ‘carried out exclusively for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of mankind as a whole’ (Article 143) and that it does not ‘unjustifiably interfere with other legitimate uses of the sea’ (Article 240 (c)).

The convention also deals with the issue of pollution or other damage to the ocean arising from human uses. Article 196 requires each party to the convention to take all measures necessary to prevent or control pollution arising in the case that it introduces an alien species (unlike wild-type Roseobacter and Oceanibulbus bacteria, our genetically modified versions would be classified as alien species) into the marine environment. Under Article 206 we would be required to carry out a Plastic Republic risk assessment and communicate the results of the assessment to other parties to the convention.

UNCLOS also provides a framework for liability and compensation. Under Article 235, each party is responsible for activities under their jurisdiction - so in our case, the UK government would be held responsible for any damage caused by Plastic Republic. Each party must ensure that their legal system provides for compensation in the event of such damage. Matters of financial liability are incredibly complex, but in our legal system financial compensation for any harm caused by Plastic Republic might be traced back to UCL or to the governing body who authorised release of our bacteria.

The Convention on Biological Diversity

The second convention relating to Plastic Republic is the Convention on Biological Diversity, which came into force in 1993, just as genetic modification techniques were beginning to become an international issue, and which deals specifically with the risks to biodiversity arising from biotechnology. Article 14 of the convention contains provisions for risk assessment similar to those in UNCLOS, with part e) stipulating that parties must have national arrangements for emergency responses to activities or events which present a danger to biological diversity. A supplementary protocol (the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur protocol, which was adopted in 2010 to deals with issues of liability and compensation) suggests that in the event of damage the UK government would have the right to compensation for any damage caused by Plastic Republic from the person or organisation in control of our bacteria.

The Small Print

It is important to remember that, whilst these conventions are helpful as guidelines, they were written long before a project like ours could ever have been conceived of. It is our opinion that, as with the case of iron fertilization, new regulations will need to be developed to address the release of synthetic organisms into the ocean. This will be a difficult task. Different countries have very different regulatory approaches to the deliberate release of synthetic organisms, and these differences must be reconciled in order to work towards an international framework for deliberate release. Whilst our plastic island paradise may not become a reality any time soon, it is surely only a matter of time until the synthetic biology debate reaches international waters.

UCL iGEM 2012 would like to thank Alan Evans at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, for his kind assistance in navigating the murky seas of UNCLOS and international ocean law.