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Bioethics Panel Finalizes Advice for Synthetic Biology

17 November 2010 5:20 pm
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A presidential bioethics commission concluded this week that the U.S. government should not clamp down too hard on research on synthetic biology. But the commission struggled with what to do about amateur synthetic biologists who aren't covered by current regulations.

Formed in April, the 13-member Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has spent 5 months on its first assignment: examining the benefits and concerns raised by the insertion of a synthetic genome into a bacterium by biologist J. Craig Venter, whose team then coaxed it to replicate using the new DNA. In July and September, the panel heard from various experts who discussed the science, moral implications, and safety concerns, including pleas for more oversight of so-called do-it-yourselfers.

The commission met yesterday and today in Atlanta to wrap up a report due on 15 December. Members emphasized the need to strike a balance between what they called "letting science rip" and the precautionary principle of not allowing any science to be done until all risks are understood. The panel has chosen "prudent vigilance." Explains co-chair James Wagner, president of Emory University: "Be aggressive about our pursuit of science" while anticipating risks and ethical concerns.

The panel expects to propose that the new field should be monitored by a panel that reports to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. It would evaluate government funding and regulations for this type of research, as well as the need to revise patent and sharing policies.

The panel's 19 draft recommendations include some specific advice. New synthetic organisms should be marked so they can be tracked if they escape into the wild, and should be made wimpy so they can't spread--for example, by giving them unusual nutritional requirements. Biosafety and other training now required only for biologists should be extended to engineers, chemists, and others doing synthetic biology.

Panelists were concerned about how synthetic biology is portrayed in the media. Speaking after the meeting, chair Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, criticized the use of the phrase "creating life," pointing out that Venter actually inserted a synthetic genome into an existing cell. The commission suggests that a nonprofit organization create a site for examining biotechnology claims along the lines of Factcheck.org, which corrects misstatements by politicians.

The commission didn't reach agreement on how to deal with an estimated 2000 do-it-yourselfers, however. One option is to make them comply with the National Institutes of Health's guidelines for studying recombinant DNA mandatory even if they don't receive NIH funding. The panel also debated mandatory registration, with Wagner noting that such a system could have the unfortunate effect of driving them underground.

*This item has been corrected. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has 13 members, not 12.

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