Q&A: Ethics chair on synthetic biology

by jeeg 29. November 2010 22:12

This week, an ethics board convened by U.S. President Barack Obama reached some conclusions about the ethics of this year's landmark experiment in synthetic biology, in which researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, inserted a synthetic genome into a bacterium, raising concerns about the creation of life. () For the last 5 months, the 12-member Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has been examining the safety concerns and ethical implications of the issue, meeting this week to discuss and summarize their findings for a report due to the White House on December 15.

The Scientist speaks with the chair of a presidential bioethics commission, which decided this week that synthetic biology should not be too harshly regulated by the U.S. government.

The Scientist spoke with chair Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, about the commission's conclusions that, despite the potential risks of creating synthetic organisms, the research should be allowed to continue.

The Scientist: What are the ethical concerns surrounding synthetic biology?

Amy Gutmann: Given that it's a very new field, there is an opportunity to ensure that as it develops, its benefits for the public are maximized and its risk, correspondingly, minimized.

Without the benefits, no risks are worth taking. So we have to begin with the benefits, which range from the likely benefits that we know now range from better production of vaccines to environmentally friendly biofuels to developing, in the near term, semi-synthetic anti malarial drugs. And those are substantial benefits.

Now for the risks. The risks are all prospective; they're not current, because the field is still in its infancy. But probably the primary risk that needs to be overseen is introducing novel organisms into the environment, [and] how they will interact with the environment.

TS: What guidelines are already in place for regulating this research?

AG: Many of the guidelines that exist for genetically modified organisms would apply to synthetic biology. However, we are recommending that the Executive Office of the President do [an analysis] to assess both the specific risks of synthetic biology research activities and the current oversight mechanisms, because there may be gaps or uncertainty among agencies as to oversight in this area.

TS: What was the commission's general consensus about the oversight of synthetic biology?

We're recommending a middle ground between what you might call the proactive view "let science rip" and the very cautious view, which says don't let science move forward until you have mitigated all the risks. We think that prudent vigilance is the Aristotelian mean between those two extremes and it requires ongoing risk analysis, rather than stop science until you know all the potential risks in the future.

TS: What are the specific recommendations the commission is drafting in its report for next month?

AG: We noticed that a lot of the initial reporting and reaction to the Venter Institute breakthrough was very simplistic, and in its simplicity, it had some seriously misleading phrases that were used that excited people's fears. Let me give you an example. Content analysis was done by another group and it turned out that the phrase "creating life" was used over and over again. Well, synthetic biology has not created life; perhaps someday it will, but it hasn't yet. We're recommending that an independent organization do for synthetic biology and biotechnology what factcheck.org does for politics, which is to a fact check, be an online resource for the public and journalists that you can check the veracity of certain claims or criticisms of new discoveries. So you might imagine a new online site called biofactcheck.org.

We're likely to recommend that new organisms when they're created should be marked or branded in some manner to be able to monitor development in synthetic biology. And there are many possible ways of doing this. We were given examples of suicide genes or other types of self-destruction triggers that can be engineered into organisms in order to place a limit on their lifespan. There's an alternative that engineering organisms can be made to depend on nutritional components that are absent outside the laboratory such as novel amino acids and thereby controlled in the event of release.

TS: Who are the "do-it-yourselfers" (DIY) and what risk do they pose in this area of research?

AG: The "do-it-yourselfers" are individuals who work not in institutional settings. Do-it-yourself biology is an important and exciting part of this field and it showcases how science can engage people across our society who don't have university or industrial affiliations. At the same time, the global expansion of do-it-yourself bio raises some concerns about safety and security.

The commission is recommending that the Office of Science and Technology Policy, for example, could periodically update an analysis of the safety and security risks that are posed by synthetic biology activities in both institutional and non-institutional settings, like DIY bio. [We encourage that it is done] in consultation with the DIY community, which actually has an organized group of about 2,000 members and they would be eager to collaborate on this.

I hasten to add that at this point there is nothing that we were told by anybody that would suggest that there are safety and security problems that we should worry about at the moment. This gives us the opportunity to make recommendation that would afford the assurance to the public that there was oversight over safety and security in all realms.


By Jeff Akst, The Scientist


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