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Hearing Discusses Synthetic Biology Implications

May 28, 2010

Scientists said on Thursday that synthetic biology can be used to make instant vaccines, inexpensive medicines and even nonpolluting fuel, but it will take time.

Researchers, members of Congress and an ethicist all agreed the technology does not pose immediate environmental, ethical and security concerns, but did say that everyone involved needs to keep a close eye on developments.

A hearing before the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee was spent mostly outlining the potential of the technology. The hearing was scheduled after a team at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced they had used an artificially synthesized genome to revive a bacterium that had its own genetic material scooped out.

“It is not life from scratch,” the founder of the institute, Venter, told the hearing. He called the work “a baby step” in the field of synthetic biology. The eventual goal of synthetic biology is to build organisms directly to order from digital DNA.

Scientists have held out the prospect of microbes that can synthesize clean fuel and gobble up pollutants, as questions arise from the recent Gulf of Mexico oil disaster about where to look for oil and what threats petroleum products have toward the environment.

“Our optimistic estimates are that it is going to be at least a decade before there are replacements for gasoline and diesel fuel,” said Venter, whose privately held Synthetic Genomics Inc. has a contract with Exxon Mobil Corp to try to make algae that can produce bio-fuel.

Jay Keasling of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and the University of California Berkeley Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center said the work by his team had already been used as the foundation for two bio-fuel companies — Amvris Biotechnologies and LS9, the Renewable Petroleum Company.

Vaccine maker Sanofi Aventis has licensed technology to make engineered brewer’s yeast that produces the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, said Keasling. He said production should be available at cost to the developing world within two years.

Microbes engineered to make fuel from carbon dioxide could solve the world’s energy needs by pulling excess gases from the atmosphere, helping to lower the contribution to global warming, said Venter.

The same technology could be used to design new vaccines in the computer, he added. He defended moves to patent the technology. “this is clearly the first life form out of a computer and invented by humans,” Venter said.

Some researchers said they have fears that Venter or other groups may patent the process and keep them blind to the technology.

Bioethicist Gregory Kaebnick of the nonpartisan Hastings Center said he saw no immediate ethical challenges.

“I believe concerns about the sacredness of life are not undercut by the science,” Kaebnick told the hearing, noting that it is just microbes at this point.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, agreed and said there were no particular reservations about biological attacks using the technology, noting that it took Venter’s team years to make their organism.

“We also must keep in mind that nature itself is already an expert at creating microbes that can cause great harm to humans,” Fauci said. “Do not over-regulate something that needs care, integrity and responsibility,” he urged the committee.

Image Caption: Negatively stained transmission electron micrographs of dividing M. mycoides JCVI-syn1. Freshly fixed cells were stained using 1% uranyl acetate on pure carbon substrate visualized using JEOL 1200EX transmission electron microscope at 80 keV. Electron micrographs were provided by Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at the University of California at San Diego.

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