Policy experts from the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have released a report, “Synthetic Genomics: Options for Governance,” which outlines areas for interventions and policy options to help mitigate potential risks with this area of research.
Synthetic genomics combines methods for the chemical synthesis of DNA with computational techniques for its design, allowing scientists to construct genetic material that would be impossible or impractical using more conventional biotechnological approaches. Scientists foresee many potential positive applications including new pharmaceuticals and biologically produced, green fuels.
The report, funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, resulted from 20 months of in-depth study, review and analysis.
The core group set out to analyze the state of the technology in synthetic genomics and to develop a comprehensive set of options for policy makers, researchers, and companies in the field. The report includes options that help to enhance biosecurity, foster laboratory safety, and protect the communities and environment outside of laboratories.
Findings on the state of the technology include:
Synthetic genomics could help produce biological routes to cost-effective biofuels, including hydrocarbons, and renewable chemical platforms.
Biobased manufacturing using genetically enhanced microbes (GEMS) can produce the raw materials for environmentally friendly products or the pathways for cleaner methods of production.
There are at least 24 companies within the United States and 21 in other countries—notably Germany and Canada—engaged in commercial synthesis of gene- and genome-length DNA.
Improvements in the speed and cost of DNA synthesis are opening the field of industrial biotechnology to new participants (e.g., engineers seeking new tools).
DNA synthesis has already been applied in research on new or improved drugs—for example, the antimalarial drug artemisinin.
The group identified three areas for policy intervention and outlined policy options for each intervention point.
We found no “magic bullets” for assuring that synthetic genomics is used only for constructive, positive applications. We did, however construct a series of policy interventions that could each incrementally reduce the risks from this emerging technology and, if implemented as a coordinated portfolio, could significantly reduce the risks.—Synthetic Genomics: Options for Governance
The first set of options applies to firms that supply synthetic DNA, both those that supply gene- and genome-length strands of DNA and those that supply much shorter oligonucleotides. This set includes the option, for example, that firms must use special software to screen orders for potentially harmful DNA.
The second set of options is aimed at the oversight or regulation of DNA synthesizers and reagents used in synthesis. For example, owners of DNA synthesizers might be required to register their machines, or that licenses might be required in order to purchase specific chemicals needed to synthesize DNA.
The final set of options is aimed exclusively at legitimate users of synthetic genomics technologies. The options cover both the education of users (e.g., modules in university courses that explicitly discuss the risks and best practices when using these new technologies) and prior review of experiments (for example, expanding the roles of institutional biosafety committees to review a broader range of “risky” experiments).
The report makes no recommendations.