Synthetic biology

Earlier this year, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute reported in the journal Science that they had designed and created a synthetic chromosome which they transplanted into a living cell. The living cell created new cells which are controlled only by the synthetic chromosome. The experiment was another reminder of the possibilities of synthetic biology, and its complexities.

The revolution in the life sciences is filled with promise for improvements in health, medicine, energy, and the environment. Yet the field known as synthetic biology is relatively new, and many hurdles remain. Turns out it is a lot easier to synthesize some bits of genetic material than it is to make them work inside the body. For an interesting look at the difficulties, see this piece from Nature, in January.

The knowledge of biology is dual use: that which can make our lives better can also be used for ill. With this in mind, President Obama last May 20 asked his new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to undertake a study of synthetic biology, looking at the “potential medical, environmental, security, and other benefits of this field of research, as well as any potential health, security or other risks.” He asked for the study to be complete in six months.

Last week, The Scientist published an interview with Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, who is the chairman of the 12-member commission.

Gutmann says the benefits of the new field could range from “better production of vaccines to environmentally friendly biofuels to developing, in the near term, semi-synthetic anti malarial drugs.” But there are risks, she added, all in the future. The primary risk “that needs to be overseen is introducing novel organisms into the environment, [and] how they will react with the environment.”

She says the panel will recommend some kind of middle ground between unfettered scientific discovery and stopping all scientific research until the risks are known.

Can biological science police itself? This is the question Amy E. Smithson has asked in a new article for the journal SurvivalSmithson, a senior fellow at the James L. Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute, says recent experiments have sparked a debate over the need for increased oversight, whether by scientists themselves, or by the government, or others. The article gives a good overview of the options. Smithson concludes that we haven’t found the best answer yet, and both government and those outside it need to do more to find the right mix of oversight. While the government can’t leave it all to the private sector, Smithson says the biotech industry is not likely to tolerate those who would misuse biology for malevolent purposes. “Companies do not want to see products designed and produced for legitimate purposes hijacked for malign ones,” she writes, “if only because such misuse could cause a company’s fortunes to plummet.”

A related phenomenon is the rise of the do-it-yourself bio community. According to another recent piece in Nature, potential “bio-hackers” around the world “are setting up labs in their garages, closests and kitchens—from professional scientists keeping a side project at home to individuals who have never used a pipette before.” For now, they are weekend hobbyists, the article says, but there have been security concerns raised about dabbling in dangerous pathogens. The FBI has taken a sort of “neighborhood watch” approach to the hobbyists, relying on the biohackers to monitor their own community and report any behavior they find threatening, the article says.

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