Synthetic biology gets green light from bioethics commission

Posted by Emma Woollacott

The Presidential Commission on Bioethics has decided that there's no need to halt research in the controversial field of synthetic biology, and that no new regulations are necessary.

But it says in its report there's still some uncertainly about the risks, and that more analysis needs to be done. It also calls for coordinated federal oversight of organizations working in the field.

Synthetic biology - the design and creation of laboratory-made biological parts - holds the promise of new vaccines, drugs and biofuels.

"We comprehensively reviewed the developing field of synthetic biology to understand both its potential rewards and risks," said Dr Amy Gutmann, the Commission chair and president of the University of Pennsylvania.

"We considered an array of approaches to regulation — from allowing unfettered freedom with minimal oversight to prohibiting experiments until they can be ruled completely safe beyond a reasonable doubt. We chose a middle course to maximize public benefits while also safeguarding against risks."

The Commission was convened following the May 20 announcement by the J Craig Venter Institute that it had inserted a laboratory-made
genome into a bacterial cell, creating a 'synthetic' living organism.

Over the last five months, it's examined the potential benefits of synthetic biology, including the development of vaccines and new drugs and the production of biofuels that could help reduce the need for fossil fuels.

But it's also looked at the risks, including the danger of an inadvertent release of a laboratory-created organism into the wild, and has recommended that there should be careful monitoring of research.

The Executive Office of the President, possibly through the Office of Science and Technology Policy, should coordinate federal agencies that oversee areas related to synthetic biology, including oversight, product licensing and funding, it says. It needs to remain 'actively engaged' with so-called 'do-it-yourself' groups.

Field release should be permitted only after reasonable risk assessment, and there should be educational classes on the ethical dilemmas raised.

"The public, journalists, and policymakers need facts and reliable analyses to help them understand the benefits as well as the risks of new technologies," said Gutmann.

"To aid public understanding of emerging scientific issues, the Commission is recommending that an independent organization do for synthetic biology and biotechnology — what factcheck.org does for politics — be an online resource to check the truthfulness of
prominent claims."