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Man-Made Life a Boon With Risks for Terror and Error

Genome Researcher J. Craig Venter
J. Craig Venter of Synthetic Genomics Inc., speaks during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Government regulation is needed to oversee the fast-developing synthetic biology industry, said two pioneers in the field, Harvard scientist George Church and genome researcher Craig Venter.

The ability of scientists to modify bacteria and other organisms by adding designer gene sequences may lead to faster flu vaccines and carbon-free fuels, Church and other scientists told a presidential bioethics commission meeting today in Washington. In the hands of criminals or terrorists, the technology may yield dangerous viruses or drug-resistant bacteria, a risk the FBI is monitoring.

The expansion of synthetic biology in recent years may let scientists create biofuels that reduce global warming and make cheaper and more effective drugs. Federal oversight is needed to keep track of how the science is being used and by whom to prevent the deliberate or inadvertent release of dangerous material, said Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

“As the costs drop and knowledge spreads, individuals or small groups can do with biology what they currently do with explosives, illegal drugs, and computer viruses,” Church said in a July 6 interview. “If you have a speed limit but no one enforcing it, you’ll have people speeding. You need to proactively set up a radar system and surveil it.”

Church and Venter were among the scientists who addressed the panel on the first of a two-day hearing on synthetic biology held by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

Lab-Assembled DNA

On May 20, a team led by Venter reported in the journal Science the creation of the first synthetic life form made entirely with pieces of lab-assembled DNA. That day, President Barack Obama asked the commission to study advances in synthetic biology and report back to him within six months with recommendations.

Synthetic biology advances conventional biotechnology to enable greater “designer” control of genetic engineering. In the biotechnology practiced today, sections of genes found in one organism are inserted into another to accomplish a goal, such as making a plant resistant to a pesticide. Synthetic biologists may use computers to design gene sequences that don’t exist in nature, have those sequences chemically synthesized, and then insert them into the genome of existing organisms.

Synthetic biology may have negative environmental impacts that need to be monitored closely, said Allison Snow, a professor in the department of evolution, ecology and organizational biology at Ohio State University in Columbus. That requires disclosure about what private companies are doing, she said.

Fuel From Algae

Venter’s closely held company, La Jolla, California-based Synthetic Genomics Inc., has a $600 million deal with Exxon-Mobil Corp. based in Irving, Texas, to develop fuel from algae. Little public information is available about how that effort will proceed and whether algae will be grown in public waterways or laboratory vats, she said.

Regulators need to take steps to prevent accidental release of designer organisms into the environment, where they might replicate and damage plants, animals and habitat, Snow said. A worst-case scenario of environmental harm might result from accidental release of synthesized algae, she said.

“Engineered blue-green algae could spread to lakes or ponds, displace other species and create algae blooms” that choke off the oxygen supply and kill fish, she said.

‘Garage Biologists’

The current limited oversight largely stems from controls and reporting requirements imposed on the recipients of federal grants, Church said. That doesn’t address the burgeoning group of “garage biologists” who are helping drive innovation in a way similar to a previous generation of tinkerers who developed computer technologies.

“The rules don’t go far enough,” Church said. “There’s a lot more out there than federal grantees and contractors.”

The lack of control over who can obtain genetic sequences and have them produced by one of a handful of companies that custom-synthesize DNA for customers may pose risks, Venter told the commission.

“If all you need is the genetic code and the computer, it totally changes who has access,” Venter said. Students and others “can order anything from a DNA synthesizer.”

“You can buy DNA synthesizers off EBay,” Venter said.

Companies synthesizing DNA are voluntarily screening orders they receive to look for potentially dangerous sequences, Venter said. This helps minimize the risk, he said.

Flu Vaccine

Using techniques of synthetic biology may enable scientists to custom design and produce the seed stock for a flu vaccine in less than 24 hours, Venter said. While that may speed vaccine development, it wouldn’t resolve the slowdown from growing vaccine inside chicken eggs, a decades-old technique that takes weeks to complete, Kristala Prather, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, told the panel.

Among those also scheduled to testify at the hearing are Edward You, supervisory special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s weapons of mass destruction directorate. The agency has been working with academic and company researchers to set up systems for monitoring the distribution of computer-generated gene sequences -- the blueprints that contain the letters of genetic code that can be used to modify an existing organism.

These gene maps might be used to modify bacteria or other organisms to create new, powerful viruses, or to engineer bacteria that would be resistant to antibiotics, You said in a telephone interview yesterday.

No Danger Yet

The agency doesn’t see the potential for terrorists or criminals to use synthetic biology to develop bio-weapons as a current danger right now, You said. “Although there is not an identified threat today, the barrier to do harm or mischief is getting lower” as advances in genomic technology cut the cost of engineering gene sequences, he said.

Synthetic biology also may push developing countries to devote more land to growing crops for fuel instead of food, said Pat Mooney, executive director of ETC Group, an organization based in Ottawa that monitors the impact of biotechnology on society.

Amyris Biotechnologies, an Emeryville, California-based company creating low-cost malaria drugs and bio-fuels, has a venture to grow sugar cane in Brazil and ferment it with bio-engineered yeast to develop non-petroleum diesel and jet fuel.

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