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Call for moratorium on synthetic biology

2 April 2012
Appeared in BioNews 651

Synthetic biology, which uses genetic engineering to build new genomes and organisms, has come under attack in a report published by Friends of the Earth and supported by over 100 other 'public interest' groups.

The report, 'Principles for the oversight of synthetic biology', calls for a suspension on the release and commercial use of all synthetic organisms and products until more stringent regulation is in place.

Describing current laws regulating biotechnology as 'outdated and inadequate', the report outlines seven guiding principles to be applied in order to place 'the health of people and the environment above corporate profits' and protect against the 'novel risks of synthetic biology'. Chief among these risks, the report says, are the possible impact on delicate ecosystems and the potential of synthetic organisms to develop into human pathogens.

The report also recommends a complete ban on the use of synthetic biology to manipulate human genomes or the microorganisms found in and on the human body, calling this research 'risky' and 'fraught with ethical concerns'.

A spokesperson for the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues in the USA, which said that synthetic biology posed no new risk following an investigation in 2010, told Science Insider that the Commission welcomes the organisations' input.

However, others, including Mr Brent Erickson from the Biotechnology Industry Organization, have described the report as unhelpful, both to policy-makers and to the public. Erickson says that 'the shrillness of [the report's] tone and its lack of objectivity' demonstrates a poor understanding of synthetic biology, which he considers to be very similar to what is now relatively routine genetic engineering. 'It's not like we don't have experience in dealing with those organisms', Erickson told Science Insider, 'there are a lot of safeguards in place'.

Genetic engineering is broadly defined as encompassing all activity that involves the manipulation of DNA and in particular the introduction of new genes into an organism. Synthetic biology is seen as the next step. It applies the principles of engineering to build new genomes and therefore new organisms by combining and re-writing genes into combinations that would not exist in nature.

The founding father of this field is Dr Craig Venter. It was his announcement in 2010 of the creation of world's first synthetic bacterial cell, whose genome had been made entirely in the lab and was capable of dividing and reproducing itself, which sparked the initial investigation by the Presidential Commission in the USA.

Dr Todd Kuiken from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in the USA, which has also prepared a report on the policy implications of advancement in synthetic biology, told MSNBC (Microsoft/National Broadcasting Company) that the principles outlined in this new report were 'not that much different' from the Presidential Commission's original recommendations and did not include anything 'that surprising'. Dr Kuiken agreed that 'there are potential risks' that need to be considered 'before we start putting these things out there'.

'Principles for the oversight of synthetic biology' was released to coincide with Dr Venter's discussion of 'made-to-order' microbes and their use in producing vaccines, food and biofuels at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.

111 Organizations Call for Synthetic Biology Moratorium
Science |  13 March 2012
A Call to Ban Synthetic Biology
The Scientist |  15 March 2012
J. Craig Venter Describes Biofuels, Vaccines and Foods from Made-To-Order Microbes
Science Daily |  26 March 2012
New declaration calls for precautionary oversight for the emerging field of synthetic biology
Friends of the Earth (press release) |  13 March 2012
'Public Interest' Groups Call for Synthetic Biology Regulation
JDSupra |  15 March 2012
Synthetic biology: Four steps to avoid a synthetic-biology disaster
Nature |  29 February 2012
The strange new craft of making life from scratch
BBC News |  27 March 2012
What to do about synthetic life?
MSNBC Cosmic Log |  13 March 2012
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