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White House Council Receives Synthetic Biology Report

By Matt Jones

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News)– The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) in a meeting on Friday heard a summary of a White House-commissioned report on synthetic biology that details a number of steps that should be taken to oversee synbio research without undercutting innovation.

Presenting the report on synthetic biology, James Wagner, vice chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethics, told PCAST and its Co-Chair, Eric Lander of the Broad Institute, that the committee urges using "prudent vigilance" in regulating synthetic biology.

In the report made available last month "New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies," the commission outlines 18 ways that the federal government could address safety, security, and ethical concerns about synthetic biology without squelching the promise of new innovations in this field.

The report was commissioned by President Barack Obama immediately in the wake of the news last year that the J. Craig Venter Institute had created a synthetic genome and gotten it to replicate after it was inserted into a pre-existing microbe.

Wagner said on Friday that while the JCVI innovation amounted to a "quantum advance" in genetic engineering, the bioethics commission found that it was probably not a herald for an entirely new regulatory system.

He said that the reaction to the news in the media may have been "out of proportion," adding that "the popular press couldn't avoid making references to 'playing God' and the prospect that we were creating life, [and] running afoul of all that is good in certain faith traditions."

Wagner explained that while the report provided 18 "very specific and actionable recommendations" for steps to be taken by the Executive Office of the President and other federal agencies over the next year-and-a-half, it notably did not call for the creation of any new federal agencies or oversight bodies to deal specifically with synthetic biology.

He said that the group was asked to consider the potential benefits as well as risks of synbio, and to identify ethical boundaries involved, as well as to provide proposals for how the US government should approach this field in the future.

"We have a science that is significant, but still in its infancy, so we were able to look forward rather than be reactive," Wagner explained. He noted that being forward-looking makes this set of issues easier to handle than, for example, nuclear proliferation after the weapons have already proliferated.

After holding three meetings and hearings from dozens of experts in a range of related fields, the commission identified five principles that it used to draft its recommendations and that should be used going forward, Wagner explained.

Outlining these principles, Wagner said the advances in this field, in general, should be assessed for their public beneficence and justice and fairness, and that there should be vigilance about responsible stewardship and intellectual freedom.

The commission highlighted three "potential near-term benefits" of synbio research, including engineering microbes to be biofactories for producing vaccines, fuels, and pharmaceuticals. Wagner also suggested that bioremediation applications will probably be another use for synbio innovations.

There also are "two large categories" of risks, including the potential for accidental release and/or unintended consequences of releasing or using organisms and their DNA, and the possibility that someone will engineer organisms such as viruses for malevolent goals.

Wagner explained that an over-arching point that the commission was left with is that much of the synbio work that is being practiced today, and will be in the near future, is not manifestly, or in application, much different from what has been happening in genetic engineering over the past two or three decades.

He also said that as the commission discussed the field with representatives from religious perspectives, the theologians were in agreement that what has been achieved in synbio so far, including the development at JCVI, is "not the creation of life."

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