Regulation of synthetic biology industry urged

Two scientists warn of dangers

By Arielle Fridson and Rob Waters
Bloomberg News / July 9, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Government regulation is needed to oversee the fast-developing synthetic biology industry, according to 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 carbon-free fuels and medical breakthroughs, Church and other scientists said at a presidential bioethics commission meeting yesterday. In the hands of criminals or terrorists, however, the technology may yield dangerous viruses or drug-resistant bacteria, a risk the FBI is monitoring.

Federal oversight is needed to track 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.

“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 an interview this week. “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.

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 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. That requires disclosure about what private companies are doing, 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, she said.

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 companies that custom-synthesize DNA may pose risks, Venter told the commission.

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