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Synthetic Life Needs More Oversight, Commission Says

December 17, 2010
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

In a story published by Bloomberg this week, David Olmos reports that the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has issued a recommendation that biofuels, vaccines and products under development in the emerging field of synthetic biology receive coordinated oversight from the U.S. government. That scrutiny, according to the commission’s report, should include an assessment of risks posed by the technology before products are tested outside of a laboratory.

Synthetic biology refers to lab engineering techniques that artificially create DNA to assemble organisms with novel or enhanced qualities.

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, told Olmos in a telephone interview. The panel sought to be forward-looking because “this science is in its infancy,” she said.

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

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 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.

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