Panel Calls for Measured Development of Synthetic Microbes

The United States should take a number of steps to mitigate bioterrorism and other threats that could be posed by new technologies enabling development of man-made microorganisms, a recently established U.S. government panel said in a report made public today (see GSN, Oct. 14).

Advancements in synthetic biology that could allow the creation of bacteria, viruses and other organisms from scratch have been heralded as paving the way for future medical, agricultural and energy breakthroughs. The developments, accompanied by a rising number of gene-splicing hobbyists, have also prompted concerns that extremists might one day gain the capacity to reproduce or create deadly pathogens for use in an attack (Rob Stein, Washington Post, Dec. 16).

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues said the possibility of a bioterrorism agent or any other self-sustaining organism being created in a laboratory "still remains remote," USA Today reported.

"Synthetic biology is in its infancy," said University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, who heads the panel. "The risks are similar to any new technology, and those risks are fairly far off in the future, not tomorrow or the next year" (Dan Vergano, USA Today, Dec. 15).

The panel in its first report listed 18 steps intended to "minimize the risks and foster innovation," the Post reported. The suggestions included developing more unified policies for synthetic biology research, completing within 18 months a federal assessment of present synthetic biology funding, and requiring that artificially produced agents released outside the laboratory contain "suicide genes" or other measures to prevent the agents from running rampant.

The report also calls for the establishment of "a biology equivalent to FactCheck.org, in which a private group would track statements about the science and offer an independent view of the truth of such claims."

A White House Science and Technology Policy Office spokesman called the panel's assessment a "thoughtful analysis."

"We appreciate the commission's main conclusion that synthetic biology does not currently pose novel safety or ethical issues that require the creation of new oversight bodies," the official said.

Critics, though, blasted the report for not advocating stricter regulatory measures. In a letter to the panel, more than 30 environmental organizations called for a ban on the release or use in business of synthetic biological agents their effects are thoroughly studied.

The assessment "sends a mixed message that is too watered down," Ohio State University biologist Allison Snow added (Stein, Washington Post).

December 16, 2010
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The United States should take a number of steps to mitigate bioterrorism and other threats that could be posed by new technologies enabling development of man-made microorganisms, a recently established U.S. government panel said in a report made public today (see GSN, Oct. 14).