Keep a close eye on synthetic biology

A presidential commission lays out a reasonable path forward in exploring the potential of synthetic biology, a possible boon to energy, environmental cleanup, and medicine. But its report should also spark an ongoing debate.

The emerging field of synthetic biology epitomizes the promise and perils of our biotechnological age.

New organisms that have never existed in nature, but instead come from government or commercial laboratories, could produce wonders: inexpensive and abundant biofuels, substances that render toxic wastes harmless, or new drugs.

But they bear the potential for great mischief, too, if thoughtful and sufficient precautions are not firmly in place.

A US presidential commission looking into synthetic biology issued 18 recommendations for action on Dec. 16. The panel’s work offers an important first step in understanding the ethical and environmental questions being raised. But the recommendations should be seen as just that – a first step – and not a final blueprint.

The 188-page report from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues suggests that the White House itself oversee research into synthetic biology, though it stops short of calling for a special “czar.” No new laws or regulations are needed at this time, it says, nor is a moratorium on research or deployment of new organisms.

The report does call for making public all US government-funded projects involving synthetic biology within the next 18 months. It also recommends mandatory ethical training for those working in the field. And it urges the creation of an independent fact-checking website that would provide the public with accurate information, and debunk wild rumors about the emerging field.

It says any synthetic organisms should have built-in “suicide genes” or other fail-safe features that would prevent them from spreading in the environment on their own.

The commission began its work in May at the behest of President Obama, after bioentrepreneur J. Craig Venter and colleagues published a paper saying that they had created a “synthetic organism.” Venter and his group transplanted a complete, different genome into an existing bacterium, which replaced its genome and transformed its identity.

The Venter team did not “create life,” since an existing living organism was used. Such a feat is not likely in the immediate future, the commission says.

Bioterrorism remains a major concern. In theory, synthetic biology could be used to create new air- or water-borne pathogens, for example.

Nearly three score environmental and other public interest groups from 22 countries have sent a letter to the US officials calling the report “deeply flawed” and urging a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms until the risks are better known and new regulations can be formulated.

The letter urges use of the “precautionary principle,” a term which, it says, “is recognized by international treaties.” Instead the commission recommends what it calls “prudent vigilance,” which the letter says is an unclear concept without recognized legal standing or precedence.

By placing too much reliance on industry self-regulation, the commission’s report “means no real regulation or oversight of synthetic biology,” the letter concludes.

Many biotech researchers, including Venter, have welcomed the report as representing a reasonable path forward, as has the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Government must always weigh the benefits of rapid scientific innovation against potential harms. The commission’s report seems to adequately embrace both these roles – for the present. But it should not end the debate, but rather stir more dialogue among citizens, scientists, and government officials.

The 1993 film “Jurassic Park” offered moviegoers a prescient warning on the dangers of underestimating what new forms of life forms can do. “Life breaks free,” cautions one character, “expands to new territory, and crashes through barriers – painfully – maybe even dangerously.”

Such unfortunate results need to be confined to science fiction, not played out in real life

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