The blog of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Lonnie Ali on synthetic biology: `So many opportunities’

Commission member Lonnie Ali, center

Lonnie Ali, the wife of Muhammad Ali and an advocate for raising awareness of Parkinson’s disease, is a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. During a break in this week’s hearings, she talked about her experience on the Commission:

Q: What have been your impressions so far?

A: I was asked to be on the Commission, my name was submitted by a member of PAN, the Parkinson’s Action Network. I considered it an honor to serve the country and to do some public good in an area I had not done before. It was just an honor that I would be considered.

Q: What about this first topic, synthetic biology?

A: I’m not a scientist. I’m the only one here without a lot of letters behind my name! (Editor’s note: She earned her MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.) But I find it extremely interesting from a lay person’s perspective of all the issues behind synthetic biology. It’s very important for the public to be informed about the basic facts, and its potential to do public good.

You know that Exxon commercial? Before I would have never noticed it when it talks about algae and using these biofuels, which will alleviate the need for fossil fuels. That’s a potential use of synthetic biology. What a wonderful opportunity to use something like that to educate the public about what we are talking about.

When that whole thing came out with Mr. Venter, and creating an artificial life, that was a little scary before we got all the facts. The ability to have exposure to the types of experts we’ve had testify has given us very important information, which will guide policy and help us put together these recommendations. It’s a wonderful opportunity.

I really hope when the President reads this, he realizes that we have tried to be as responsive as we could and as thorough as we could to give him all the information.

Q: What do you think about the potential applications of synthetic biology?

A: It has a lot of opportunity for public good. It could create advances for Parkinson’s disease. Somewhere in the science they might find something to improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s disease or other kinds of diseases. Anything that alleviates human suffering is great. You don’t know what can happen next. There are so many opportunities here for this technology – advances that we can’t imagine sitting here today.

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