White House Commission: Biologists Can Engineer Custom Organisms Without Federal Regulation

Green light for synthetic biology
The J. Craig Venter Institute's "synthetic cell." JCVI

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.”

[Scientific American, AFP]