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Scientist, Police Thyself

5 December 2006 (All day)
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WASHINGTON, D.C.--Thanks to advances in synthetic genomics, an aspiring bioterrorist could turn a harmless virus into a deadly strain—or make a killer bug from scratch—by ordering some strands of DNA. Yesterday, an independent group of biologists and security experts confronted this threat by issuing a draft report that lays out options for regulating commercial gene synthesis and academic research in the field.

The group was led by individuals at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, and funded by a $570,000 grant from the Sloan Foundation. The report was presented here before an audience of academic scientists, government officials, and industry representatives. Its recommendations for regulating the industry include requiring gene synthesis companies to screen orders, deny services to customers who are not certified by institutional biosafety officers, and maintain a database of orders that can be accessed by federal investigators.

As for supervising research, the report suggests options such as allowing scientists to govern themselves voluntarily through reviews conducted by existing institutional biosafety committees (IBCs) and imposing penalties on institutions and researchers that don't carry out such reviews. And to ensure that terrorists don't get access to scientific information that could be used to develop bioweapons, the report recommends journal editors remove sensitive details from manuscripts--with or without the help of a national advisory group. It also suggests the creation of a restricted database, which would allow researchers to share sensitive information with each other without making it public.

This is not the first time that the scientific community has offered up a proposal for regulating synthetic genomics. Some of the same recommendations were proposed by researchers in a community declaration made at Synthetic Biology 2.0, a meeting held at the University of California, Berkeley, in May (ScienceNOW, 23 May).

The authors of the new report hope that its contents will frame the debate over how much government oversight and control is warranted in the field. Observers say the goal is to influence the NIH-appointed National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity (NSABB), which is looking into synthetic genomics as part of a broader effort to develop policies aimed at thwarting misuse of "dual-use" research in the life sciences. "There will be specific things coming out of this report that will go to the NSABB," says MIT researcher Drew Endy, who is one of the authors.

The report's emphasis on self-governance by scientists has raised the hackles of some environmental groups. "Assigning reviews of synthetic genomics projects to institutional biosafety committees (IBCs)--without even making such reviews legally binding--is simply not going to work," says Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project, a bioweapons watchdog group in Texas. "IBCs simply don't exist at many institutions, and many of the ones that do exist don't even meet regularly. How can we expect such a broken system to deal with this additional responsibility?"

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