Putting a Long Leash on Synthetic Life

The bacteria that started it all.

The bacteria that started it all.

When scientist/entrepreneur J. Craig Venter announced that his company had created “synthetic life” in March, a predictable tsunami of media hype followed. Though the discovery was more accurately an important step in synthetic biology, rather than the creation of life from scratch in a laboratory, the story provoked rampant speculation about what this new field might be capable of. Interest in the promise and dangers of synthetic biology went up to the very top – the White House, where President Obama ordered his Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to look at this new science as their first item of business.

Today, seven months later, the commission’s report [pdf] is being released, with recommendations on what the federal government should do – and not do – about the growing field of synthetic biology. Our own Daniel Sulmasy, professor of medicine and ethics at the University of Chicago Medical Center and the Divinity School, is one of 13 members of the commission, and was kind enough to walk ScienceLife through the highlights of the report. The over-arching theme is one of “prudent vigilance,” Sulmasy said.

“We rejected the position that progress is so good, let’s just forget about any kind of regulation,” Sulmasy said. “But we also rejected the very cautious ‘precautionary principle,’ that says until something is proven safe we shouldn’t do it. I think that would cripple scientists and the potential of progress here that may be of significant benefit.”

Someday, synthetic organisms may provide renewable fuel sources, efficient vaccines, new ways of fighting pollution, and improved agriculture. While those applications are a long way off, Sulmasy said now was the right time for the commission to start a conversation about the ethics of such scientific breakthroughs, even if it is decades before they come to fruition. There’s a danger in being too early, he said: ethicists discussed the possibility of cloning organisms as early as the 1970’s, yet those discussions were largely unacknowledged, leaving policymakers unprepared for the ramifications of Dolly the Sheep in 1997. But open the ethical conversation too late, and it’s “like trying to put the cat back in the bag,” Sulmasy said.

“I hope that we can take a look early enough that we can have the ethical debate before the science is being done in widespread fashion and it’s impossible to regulate,” Sulmasy said.

Still, not knowing where synthetic biology may lead left the commission in a tough spot. Of the 18 recommendations listed in their report, the majority suggest using public funding organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and NASA to share lifeguard duties over the field, without proscribing any specific restrictions. The agencies should fund promising research projects in synthetic biology, the report says, and make sure that adequate testing is done before the products of thatresearch are released beyond the laboratory.

Keeping scientists at academic institutions and private research companies in line should be possible under this structure, but the report identifies a newer, less predictable group of experimenters: DIY scientists. Shrinking costs of genome sequencing and scientific tools have led to a community of hobbyists doing synthetic biology research at home, Sulmasy said.

“There already is a lot of regulation and oversight on the academic and industrial side, so we didn’t think there was a need to create an independent commission or mechanism for assuring the safety of this work there,” Sulmasy said. “Where we did discover a gap is in a small number of people who are doing this kind of work at home and are very intrigued by it. For those who fall outside of the usual communities, we want to bring them into the fold without causing resistance.”

Another intriguing recommendation in the report is the establishment of an independent fact-checking body to keep the rhetoric about new synthetic biology findings in perspective, not unlike what factcheck.org does for politicians. In the report, scientists and reporters using “sensationalistic buzzwords and phrases such as ‘creating life’ or ‘playing God'” have their wrists gently slapped for impeding public understanding of science (a charge also relevant to recent “arsenic life” reporting). An independent organization, made up of science and communications experts, could verify new findings and explain them in a sober and accurate fashion, Sulmasy suggested.

“We felt this would be something terrific for the public and press to be able to use and be sure that any public debate about these sorts of issues is realistic and measured and not clouded by a lot of hype,” he said. “This would help inform the public and result in a more measured, accurate, and fair debate about the science and ethics of these kinds of developments.”

More immediately, the impact of the commission’s report on synthetic biology may actually be felt in other areas on the frontier of biology and medicine. The core ethical principles laid out by the commission to assess synthetic biology – public beneficence, responsible stewardship, intellectual freedom and responsibility, democratic deliberation, and justice and fairness – could be easily applied to other emerging technologies, Sulmasy said.

“Our task became to develop a set of principles that will be helpful for the future in looking at any and all biotechnology developments,” Sulmasy said. “From an ethical point of view, the biggest contribution is these five principles that I think transcend synthetic biology, and are applicable to other kinds of emerging biotechnology advances that we certainly want to be guided by principle.”

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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