Back in May, J. Craig Venter thrust synthetic biology into the spotlight when he announced that his institute had created the first self-replicating bacteria cell with a synthetic genome. Among those taking notice was President Barack Obama, who asked the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues – created by the President last year – to explore the myriad safety and ethics issues inherent in such discoveries. On Thursday the commission reported its conclusion: "synthetic biology is capable of significant but limited achievements posing limited risks," they said, and should be carefully watched but not regulated or barred from proceeding.
Instead of government regulation, the commission advised vigilance and self-regulation by scientists as they push forth into this very new branch of biology that seeks to create new organisms, organisms that critics claim are unnatural and therefore could wreak havoc on the larger ecosystem if they got loose in the wild. Self-regulation, say the critics, is equivalent to no regulation.
But the commission didn't advocate a completely hands-off approach when it comes to synthetic biology. Rather, they made 18 recommendations based on five ethical principles. One of those was to require mandatory ethics training for synthetic biologists working in the lab. Another asks the White House to create some kind of body that can help identify any problems in the risk assessment practices used in the field before synthetic microbes are created. It even advocates embedding "suicide genes" in all new microbes that cause them to self-terminate outside of laboratory conditions. But the commission stopped short of calling for a separate oversight body or some kind of synthetic biology czar.
Notably, the commission also takes a bit of wind out of Venter's sails in its report by downgrading, even if only semantically, his "synthetic cell." One of its justifications for the laissez-faire approach it recommends is the commission's assertion that Venter and his colleagues didn't actually create life. Rather, the report says, they altered an existing life form.
The report was the first order of business for the President's bioethics commission, and it was no small order (the report is 188 pages long). But its findings set an important precedent for synthetic biology as a discipline, allowing it the freedom to create and progress in search of discoveries that could lead to cleaner fuels, cleaner skies, and better medicines. Other fields of biological study that have been cast as "playing God" have not been so lucky.
Of course, all of this could change in the future, say, if some lab were to produce wholly new forms of life from scratch, an achievement that would be sure to shake up the very foundations of biology. But for the time being, the field is free to press forward with the government looking on from a distance. Put more succinctly in the report: "Prudent vigilance suggests that federal oversight is needed and can be exercised in a way that is consistent with scientific progress."
crap, were screwed. In a for profit world ethincs is only a word. my biggest fear is the DOD, after all they have the deepest pockets and the deadliest intentions.
18 recommondations...sounds like biological warfare is back and running soon to kill you and your neighbors...but who cares about the neighbors.
@seatellite - exactly. Talk about scary. Look at what the Army Corps did to Florida and the everglades with their engineering experiment. Look at what kudzo did for Georgia...maybe we can engineer goats that love kudzo. Why can't we just leave well enough alone when it comes to biology. Let's try to understand what we have already before we make new stuff. Eeesh. There's a reason why cat's and dogs don't mate...let's not try to "fix" that social biological dilemma.
Somebody will always be making money. We will always try and "go forward", I think the idea of imposing "ethics" into this is silly, and too churchlike for something of this caliber. Perhaps a damper on the "life" which can be "altered" per se, but is an ethical standpoint needed for an experiment? Does the government always feel they must impose on such things? Private Corporations should handle things like this, so stupid ideas like "Zombie Apocalypse" don't float around, I doubt the people who make comments similar to that can hardly comprehend the article.
I must agree with Seatellite. It does seem like this is gonna head for Z-day. I just wish I could see teh looks on the faces of the bastards who laughed at me for having made plans incase of zombies when their front doors get beat-in by the brain-craving undead. Very, very soon, it will finally be time to own some Whiskey Delta!
I believe that synthetic biology is very promising in terms of future medical advancements and material production. Like any relatively new subject it may seem frightening simply because it's capacity is not yet fully understood, but I have confidence that with the proper guidance, this field could have a substantial positive impact on the world. I agree with the commission in their decision to monitor this branch of science from afar; synthetic biology is yet in its infancy and needs the freedom to expand and flourish in order to become a useful field. Besides, more strict regulation can always be implemented at a later time.
@SchmidtComment - "Is an ethical standpoint needed for an experiment?" Really? How about the Tuskegee experiment? Or Josef Mengele's experiments? Of course some form of ethics is necessary.
As for the Commission's report - hopefully, this is just the first step. With synthetic biology in its infancy, it doesn't seem logical to slap a bunch of regulations on it due to fears of what could maybepossibly happen. However, it seems important for the progress to be monitored, and I think that the Commission should take another look at synthetic biology after a few years.
It’s promising and encouraging to hear that synthetic biology can have a future without government regulation so it can have the freedom to develop and mature into something that can help society in the long run.
This article was quite informative. Hopefully as this field continues to make advances towards the greater good, it can remain relatively untouched and the controversies surrounding it can be resolved.
I have to agree with RDZombie, ethics have little value in corporations and the Military is one biggest corporations of them all.
It concerns me that all the government can come up with for the regulation of synthesized biology is recommendations based on "ethics." In society we live in today, the "honor system" pretty much means we're doomed.
I feel that the fact that Synthetic Biology has progressed this far means that the creation of new life forms is not to far off in the future and stricter regulations must be put in place earlier rather than later
Honestly I don't think that there is anything to worry about just yet. I think people are over reacting. Scientists are not creating new, harmful predators. Their focus is on new technologies to HELP the world that we've harmed.
It seems difficult to imagine why government intervention would be necessary at this state of synthetic biology. Few labs or scientists have the knowledge/ capability to even accomplish research in this field. Thus the chance that a terrorist could create a malicious artificial life form and wreak havoc is inaccurate to say the least. I agree with the governments assessment and report.
I believe that the idea of imposing more regulation on the synthetic biology industry is necessary. The suggestions that the Commission put forward are just not enough. I agree with the fact that this new area of science will help society, especially for the fact that new innovative medicines will be created through this field. However, if there is no regulation these industries will forget that their main purpose is to help society, instead of just simply making money.
In today's age of synthetic biology it is in the earliest stages. I feel that few regulations in synthetic biology research at the current date but is something that more regulations should be imposed at a later time. Dr. James W. Wagner, Commission Vice Chair and President of Emory University said in the presidential commission for the study of bioethical issues that "the ‘Do-It-Yourself’ community has an important role to play in advancing synthetic biology, we recognize that technical challenges and costs are too high right now for a completely novel organism to be developed in a non-institutional setting.” Because of the extreme risk financially to fund such projects. People posted things that have discussed the potential risks that could affect the lives of all people in society eg. "Zombie Apocalypse." Yes possibilities of issues occurring is obviously there, but that comes with any new forms of study if that study is not put to use in a positive way.