This week, a presidential bioethics commission took up a burning new issue in science: the risks and benefits of synthetic biology. Scientists and other witnesses seemed of two minds on whether the field needs major new regulations. While some argued that for radical changes, others argued that the field merely builds on a long history of manipulating DNA in living organisms and worried that tough new oversight could stifle research.
The impetus for the meeting was a May report in Science in which researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute synthesized the genome of a bacterium, added it to another bacterial cell, and got the cell to replicate using the new DNA. The startling feat prompted President Barack Obama to ask his newly formed bioethics commission to examine the implications of the Venter study and other kinds of synthetic biology, such as creating biological circuits by putting components together in a cell. Obama asked for a report in just 6 months.
Yesterday's and today's meetings in Washington, D.C., were the first step toward a report. Along with discussing the potential benefits—such as making seed vaccines in a day and producing biofuels—some debated whether Venter's part-artificial bacterium is a major advance or simply an extension of existing DNA technologies. Princeton University microbiologist Bonnie Bassler called the advance a "slight" difference from what molecular biologists have been doing for 50 years. But like others, Venter told the commission in oral testimony today that synthetic biology is "very different from what's happened before" because scientists can now build genomes from digital information and a DNA synthesizer. This "changes the rules," Venter said.
But experts differed on whether synthetic biology requires a new oversight framework or a beefing up of existing rules.
There are already guidelines covering federally funded research on recombinant DNA and strict laws for research on potential bioweapons. These rules are being extended to synthetic biology, noted National Institutes of Health official Amy Patterson. And a voluntary program is already under way where companies screen DNA orders for sequences of dangerous pathogens to spot synthetic biologists up to no good.
As for releasing a synthetic organism into the environment—for example, a souped-up algae for energy production, which one ecologist worried could cause havoc—at least for now, the risks are not much different from those of more conventional genetically modified products, which are covered by existing rules, said science policy expert Michael Rodemeyer of the University of Virginia. "The question is how to improve" the existing system, he said.
But some seem to think this isn't enough, particularly because not all the rules apply to researchers with no federal funding, such as "garage" biologists or "do it yourselfers." Synthetic biologist George Church of Harvard Medical School in Boston, for example, argued for "licensing and surveillance" of synthetic biology labs.
In the day and a half of open meeting, the council heard a variety of other recommendations, including a moratorium on releasing synthetic organisms into the environment, a call for a White House–level office to oversee synthetic biology, and a plea for more funding for the field.
The commission is now planning a "deep dive" into the issues and will hold two more meetings in September and November, said co-chair Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania. She told ScienceInsider that news reports that say the council favors new regulations are "totally unfounded." The council has taken "no position" yet on that or the many other topics it is considering, she said.
*This article has been corrected to explain that scientists can now use digital information and DNA synthesizers to build genomes, not to create replicating organisms.