Keeping an eye on synthetic bio

In the most recent issue of Science, there’s an stimulating look at the “insights of the decade,” gathering up the big ideas and technologies of the past 10 years. Running through many of them has been an incredible leap in computing technology that transformed science, and “no field has benefitted more than genomics,” the magazine ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In the most recent issue of Science, there’s an stimulating look at the “insights of the decade,” gathering up the big ideas and technologies of the past 10 years. Running through many of them has been an incredible leap in computing technology that transformed science, and “no field has benefitted more than genomics,” the magazine says.

A decade ago, sequencing a human genome took years, hundreds of people, hundreds of machines, and endless hours of sample preparation to generate the pieces of DNA to be deciphered, one at a time… Today, a single machine can decipher three human genomes in little more than a week.

This example is just one of many signs that we are experiencing an age of discovery in biology and genetics. As I noted in a recent post, penetrating the deepest secrets of life could transform health, medicine, energy and the environment. But the knowledge of biology is dual-use: that which can make our lives better can also be used for ill. President Obama last May 20 asked his new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to undertake a study of the emerging field of synthetic biology. The request was made in the aftermath of the announcement by the J. Craig Venter Institute that they had designed and created a synthetic chromosome which they had transplanted into a living cell.

In the most recent issue of Science, there’s an stimulating look at the “insights of the decade,” gathering up the big ideas and technologies of the past 10 years. Running through many of them has been an incredible leap in computing technology that transformed science, and “no field has benefitted more than genomics,” the magazine says.

A decade ago, sequencing a human genome took years, hundreds of people, hundreds of machines, and endless hours of sample preparation to generate the pieces of DNA to be deciphered, one at a time… Today, a single machine can decipher three human genomes in little more than a week.

This example is just one of many signs that we are experiencing an age of discovery in biology and genetics. As I noted in a recent post, penetrating the deepest secrets of life could transform health, medicine, energy and the environment. But the knowledge of biology is dual-use: that which can make our lives better can also be used for ill. President Obama last May 20 asked his new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to undertake a study of the emerging field of synthetic biology. The request was made in the aftermath of the announcement by the J. Craig Venter Institute that they had designed and created a synthetic chromosome which they had transplanted into a living cell.

Obama wanted to know about the potential benefits, as well as any risks in this fast-changing field, including the rise of amatuer or “Do-It-Yourself” bio labs.

The commission’s report says: keep an eye on it, but don’t regulate it now.

On the question of risks, the report says “that presently there appears to be no serious risk of completely novel organisms being constructed in non-institutional settings including in the DIY community.” The commission said there is no need to impose special limits on the DIY labs.

Overall, the panel’s report suggests that the authorities should be on the lookout for risks, but the state of the science does not warrant a moratorium or further government regulation. Indeed, the panel warned that too much oversight might strangle innovation. The commission called for a handful of new studies over the next year and a half to see how synthetic biology unfolds.

The report cautions that “sensationalist buzzwords and phases” such as “creating life” and “playing God” have confused people about what’s really at stake. Venter’s announcement, the panel recalled, “does not amount to creating life as either a scientific or moral matter.” The Venter experiment relied on an existing, natural host. Synthesizing a genome from its chemical parts was certainly a significant accomplishment, the panel said, but “does not constitute the creation of life, the likelihood of which still remains remote for the forseeable future.”

 

 

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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