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Hitting 'Print' on Life

When Craig Venter's team published its work on the synthetic organism phi X174 a few years ago, it sparked a series of panels to determine the work's scientific, ethical, and national security implications, writes Laurie Garrett at Foreign Affairs. Other fields like chemistry and physics, she notes, have gone through stages where advances in them could either help or humanity, and now it appears to biology's turn.

"What stymies the very few national security and law enforcement experts closely following this biological revolution is the realization that the key component is simply information," Garrett writes. "While virtually all current laws in this field, both local and global, restrict and track organisms of concern (such as, say, the Ebola virus), tracking information is all but impossible."

She suggests that governments monitor, but not restrict synthetic biology work, and take steps to mitigate "obvious risks, such as the accidental leaking or deliberate release of dangerous organisms." More specifically in the US, Garrett advises restoring lost funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to the Department of Agriculture so that those agencies can hone their tracking skills. Globally, she adds, governments need to work together, and make use of and fund the World Health Organization's disease surveillance program.

"Now that synthetic biology is here to stay, the challenge is how to ensure that future generations see its emergence as more boon than bane," Garrett says.