Washington, D.C. – On December 16, 2010 the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released its report on Synthetic Biology, fulfilling its first charge from President Obama.
Prompted by the J. Craig Venter Institute’s announcement that it had created the first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell, President Obama tasked his Commission to review the developing field of synthetic biology. He asked the Commission to consider the emerging science’s potential benefits and risks and to identify appropriate ethical boundaries that would maximize benefit and minimize risk for the public.
The Commission embraced the challenging assignment and conducted three public meetings in Washington, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Subsequently, the Commission found that synbio is a field in its infancy and that major foreseeable risks are still far off. Finally, it concluded that the Venter Institute’s work was not “the creation of life” as either a scientific or a moral matter.
In its Executive Summary of New Directions: the Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies, the Commission wrote:
“The scientific evidence before the Commission showed that the research relied on an existing natural host. The technical feat of synthesizing a genome from its chemical parts so that it becomes self-replicating when inserted into a bacterial cell of another species, while a significant accomplishment, does not represent the creation of life from inorganic chemicals alone.”
After reaching its conclusions, the Commission recommended 18 action items that neither call for a moratorium on the emerging field nor encourage “letting science rip.” (You can read the recommendations here.)
After presenting its report in December to President Obama’s Science and Technology Advisor, Dr. John P. Holdren, the Commission is now engaged in discussing its findings and its recommendations with the public.
As part of that ongoing outreach, on February 4, Commission Chair, Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., delivered the keynote address at a Future Tense conference hosted by Google. Future Tense is a partnership of Arizona State University, the New America Foundation and Slate magazine. At the conference, speakers endeavored to answer, “How does a democratic society both nurture and regulate — and find the right balance between those two imperatives — fast-evolving technologies poised to radically alter life?”
“We as a society have a unique opportunity to get ahead of the science,” Gutmann said of synthetic biology during her February 4 presentation. “And get ahead of it not by shutting it down, but get ahead of it by having oversight over what it’s capable of doing and giving it maximum freedom to do the good and putting in safeguards against the bad.”
“The Commission’s report was just the beginning of that process,” Commission Executive Director Valerie Bonham said. “What we need now is ongoing dialogue and sustained review of the field. And the Commissioners believe that continued public engagement and engagement by the federal government must happen on many levels.”
At the Center for American Progress on Thursday, February 3, Commission Member Nelson Michael, M.D., Ph.D., and Bonham also worked to engage the public. In addition, Commission Vice Chair James W. Wagner, Ph.D., discussed the report with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in early January.
“It is very important that we continue to hear the views of a range of people who are working on or who are interested in synthetic biology,” Bonham said. “I recently addressed a class at National Defense University on the topic.”
But ongoing public engagement is just half of the equation. The Commission also recommended that the government continually review the advances in synthetic biology as the science unfolds.
“We are eager to work with the Executive Office of the President to implement such a review process. This type of ongoing risk assessment will provide ample warning if the brakes need to be applied on the science,” Bonham said.