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White House Commission Dives into Synthetic Biology

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – A White House-appointed group charged with reviewing bioethics spent the day yesterday hearing about synthetic biology, its potential value and its risks, from a range of experts as part of an effort to produce a report requested by President Barack Obama.

In its premiere meeting, The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues heard from representatives from industry, academics, and proponents and critics of synthetic biology. Speakers at the meeting included Synthetic Genomics' Founder J. Craig Venter and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's George Church, who also serves as an advisor to a number of genomics and synthetic biology companies.

The group of experts was assembled to inform the presidential commission about the issues surrounding synthetic biology and what, if anything, the executive branch or the government should do to help encourage the field's promise without enabling those who may use the technology for nefarious purposes, such as developing a bioterror weapon.

Just days after the J. Craig Venter Institute reported in May that it had created the world's first synthetic genome and inserted it into a microbe that then booted up and replicated, President Obama tasked the commission, which is chaired by University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, with looking into the field and developing the report.

The first day of the two-day meeting covered the breadth of the synthetic biology field, with commission members hearing about how the technology may be used to develop new disease treatments, vaccines, and biofuels, of for use in bioremediation for cleaning up toxic spills, and other applications.

The commission also inquired about how these new tools and applications are different, and not so different, from what biologists have been doing for 30 years in bioengineering labs.

They heard about some of the potential risks that people involved in the field, and those who watch it closely, are concerned about, such as new bioweapons being turned loose, and worries about what synthetically engineered organisms may do if they are released into the environment without controls.

Venter at one point likened the concerns about synthetic biology to those people have had about computers. "People make computer viruses that cause a lot of economic damage; well, we don't want the same mentality going into making new animal or plant viruses — either inadvertently or purposely," Venter said.

"And some of that can be readily prevented by some pretty straightforward regulations. But, obviously, nobody who develops new technology wants to see that ever produce harm to others. We just would like to see just the benefits," he added.

Venter said that "the molecular biology community has a pretty good track record for the last several decades because of the guidelines and rules that we have all been working under."

Church told the group that he is highly optimistic about controlling synthetic biology and making sure it is used in positive ways, but, he added, "we need to have surveillance and enforcement."

Church said he is glad that the commission has taken up the issue, because it is time to start the conversation about regulating synthetic biology in ways that protect the public from harms while it reaps the benefits of this new scientific field.

"The potential benefits I think are enormous," MIT Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Kristala Prather told the panel.

"At the same time, the risks are real. Because there is this information gap between what we really understand about biology and what our capabilities are, it is impossible for us to really predict what's going to happen in every single experiment," she said. "And so I do think it is very worthwhile to think about being as careful as possible as we do this to minimize those risks."

In a question-and-answer session the commission heard a number of general ideas about how the field might be regulated through licensing, oversight, internal review boards, information sharing and transparency, and, as Church emphasized more than once, surveillance and enforcement of these policies.

In yesterday's meeting, however, the group did not discuss particular aspects of how such regulations or surveillance and enforcement might function. That is a job that the commission will take up over the next several months as it develops its report for the White House, which is expected to be completed in this fall.

The meeting is continuing today with discussions of federal oversight and some of the ethical issues that synthetic biology presents to science and society.

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