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White House Gives Go Ahead For Synthetic Biology Research

December 16, 2010

The White House announced on Thursday that the controversial field of synthetic biology poses limited risks and should be allowed to proceed.

An expert panel convened by President Barack Obama advised vigilance and self-regulation as scientists seek ways to create new organisms that could spark useful innovations in clean energy, pollution control and medicine.

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues said in its first report that it “concluded that synthetic biology is capable of significant but limited achievements posing limited risks.”

“Future developments may raise further objections, but the Commission found no reason to endorse additional federal regulations or a moratorium on work in this field at this time.”

Obama created the panel of scientists, ethicists and public policy experts last year.

The 13-members’ first order of business was to consider the issue of synthetic biology after the J. Craig Venter Institute announced in May that it developed the first self-replicating bacteria cell controlled by a synthetic genome.

Critics said that the discovery was equivalent to “playing God,” creating organisms without adequate understanding of the ramifications, and upsetting the natural order.

Lead researcher Craig Venter said at the time that it “certainly changed my views of the definitions of life and how life works.”

However, the panel said Venter’s team had not actually created life, since the work mainly involved altering an already existing life form.

“Thoughtful deliberation about the meaning of this achievement was impossible in the hours that elapsed between the breaking news and the initial round of commentaries that ensued,” it said in its report.

“Of note, many scientists observe that this achievement is not tantamount to ‘creating life’ in a scientific sense because the research required a functioning, naturally occurring host cell to accept the synthesized genome.”

Commission chair Amy Gutmann said in a statement that the panel considered a range of approaches to regulating the new scientific field, from allowing unbridled freedom to imposing strict government regulation on experiments.

“We chose a middle course to maximize public benefits while also safeguarding against risks,” she said.

“Prudent vigilance suggests that federal oversight is needed and can be exercised in a way that is consistent with scientific progress.”

The panel said that as to the risk of releasing modified organisms into nature, a scenario some have warned could create biological threats or damage the ecosystem, “scientists and ethicists advised careful monitoring and review of the research.”

The panel also urged greater cooperation among federal agencies that oversee product licensing and funding of synthetic biology, and collaboration with world governments and groups like the World Health Organization.

“Educational classes on the ethical dilemmas raised by synthetic biology should be a mandatory part of training for young researchers, engineers, and others who work in this emerging field,” the panel said.

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