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Synthetic Life Field Needs Oversight, U.S. Panel Says

Biofuels, vaccines and products under development in the emerging field of synthetic biology should receive coordinated oversight from the U.S. government, a presidential commission said.

That scrutiny should include an assessment of risks posed by the technology before products are tested outside a laboratory, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues said today in a report. Synthetic biology refers to lab engineering techniques that artificially create DNA to assemble organisms with novel or enhanced qualities.

Genome pioneer J. Craig Venter announced in May that his nonprofit institute in Rockville, Maryland, had replaced the genetic structure of one bacterium with the DNA of another. While the development was hailed by scientists for its potential to make vaccines, drugs and biofuels, it also sparked fears that microbes may be used as weapons or inadvertently released. President Barack Obama then asked the panel to study the risks and benefits of the technology.

The commission “struck a middle course between unfettered, or what I call ‘let it rip’ science and a precautionary approach” that would have placed a moratorium on new research, Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania and head of the bioethics commission, said yesterday in a telephone interview. The panel sought to be forward-looking because “this science is in its infancy,” she said.

Companies and Products

Companies using synthetic biology include Amyris Inc. in Emeryville, California, which is developing renewable biofuels and an antimalarial drug, and Synthetic Genomics Inc., a closely held San Diego-based company founded by Venter, best known for leading a private effort to map the human genome. Exxon Mobil Corp., the biggest U.S. oil company, has pledged more than $600 million in funding to Venter’s company to make fuels from algae.

The panel called on the government to develop a “clear, defined and coordinated approach” to synthetic biology, according to a 188-page report released today. The recommendations balance the benefits, such as new malaria treatments, with the “still distant risks posed by the field,” Gutmann said.

The bioethics commission rejected the idea that the evolving field amounts to creating life, as some opponents have argued, Gutmann said.

“The feat does not constitute the creation of life, the likelihood of which still remains remote for the foreseeable future,” the commission report concluded.

The report “strikes a good balance overall,” said Gregory Kaebnick, a scholar at the Hastings Center, a bioethics research group in Garrison, New York, who testified before the panel. Still, the commission should have recommended a moratorium on testing outside the laboratory, he said.

The panel’s recommendations were “deeply flawed” and overly favored business interests, Friends of the Earth, an environmental group based in Washington, said today in a letter to the commission.

“These recommendations give industry a free pass, while failing to ensure that the environment and public health are protected,” said Eric Hoffman, a policy campaigner for Friends of the Earth, in a statement.

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