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Keep a close eye on synthetic biology

A presidential commission lays out a reasonable path forward in exploring the potential of synthetic biology, a possible boon to energy, environmental cleanup, and medicine. But its report should also spark an ongoing debate.

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The emerging field of synthetic biology epitomizes the promise and perils of our biotechnological age.

New organisms that have never existed in nature, but instead come from government or commercial laboratories, could produce wonders: inexpensive and abundant biofuels, substances that render toxic wastes harmless, or new drugs.

But they bear the potential for great mischief, too, if thoughtful and sufficient precautions are not firmly in place.

A US presidential commission looking into synthetic biology issued 18 recommendations for action on Dec. 16. The panel’s work offers an important first step in understanding the ethical and environmental questions being raised. But the recommendations should be seen as just that – a first step – and not a final blueprint.

The 188-page report from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues suggests that the White House itself oversee research into synthetic biology, though it stops short of calling for a special “czar.” No new laws or regulations are needed at this time, it says, nor is a moratorium on research or deployment of new organisms.

The report does call for making public all US government-funded projects involving synthetic biology within the next 18 months. It also recommends mandatory ethical training for those working in the field. And it urges the creation of an independent fact-checking website that would provide the public with accurate information, and debunk wild rumors about the emerging field.

It says any synthetic organisms should have built-in “suicide genes” or other fail-safe features that would prevent them from spreading in the environment on their own.

The commission began its work in May at the behest of President Obama, after bioentrepreneur J. Craig Venter and colleagues published a paper saying that they had created a “synthetic organism.” Venter and his group transplanted a complete, different genome into an existing bacterium, which replaced its genome and transformed its identity.

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