Claims about the benefits of a biotech project to make artemisinin are overblown, says
In April, a consortium led by the global health NGO PATH - and comprising the
The consortium called this "a pivotal milestone in the fight against malaria" and "a triumph for synthetic biology". [1,2] The project has certainly helped to brand synthetic biology as a revolutionary new field of science that could "heal us, heat and feed us"  - but the extent to which it will deliver benefits to people in countries burdened with malaria is debatable.
The role of interlinked technological, economic, social and political factors has been overlooked, at least in public communication about the project.
Since 2003, artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) have been the WHO's recommended treatment for malaria, with artemisinin being extracted from the plant Artemisia annua. But in 2006, scientists succeeded in creating a yeast strain that produces a precursor to artemisinin called artemisinic acid.
This was undoubtedly a scientific feat, but early on the scientists involved also made grand claims about the societal benefits of this research, which they portrayed as "a biotechnology solution to the global problem of access to affordable antimalarial drugs". 
It has taken seven years to convert the initial laboratory success into the production of commercially significant quantities of artemisinin, due to the ordinary technological challenges of industrial scaling-up.
In the meantime, I have, as a sociologist working in this area, attended numerous talks that have used this project as a stupendous illustration of what synthetic biology can achieve - complete with slides portraying African children, menacing-looking mosquitoes and stark numbers for malaria cases and deaths.
The clear implication is that the prowess and idealism of synthetic biologists will - or indeed already has - saved hundreds of thousands of poor people from this devastating disease.
This use of this project to garner support for synthetic biology is troubling.
The project's fundamental premise has been that producing artemisinin through biotechnology would be cheaper than extracting it from plants. However,
This is despite
Over time, the project leaders have put forward an additional aim: rather than replacing plant-derived artemisinin, the semi-synthetic form would provide an additional source, helping to stabilise a market price that has fluctuated from year to year just like other agricultural products.
Most Popular Stories
- AIG to Create 230 Jobs in Charlotte
- Bipartisan Negotiators Reach Modest Budget Agreement
- Justin Bieber Visits Typhoon Victims, Plays Concert
- Senate Dems Move Forward With Obama Nominees
- Russia Says Nyet to Canada North Pole Claim
- New Obama Aide to Focus on Climate Change
- Obama Nominee Confirmed for D.C. Appeals Court
- MasterCard to Split Shares, Raise Dividend
- GOP, Dems Strain to Unearth a Modest Budget Pact
- Office Depot Moving HQ to Florida