Shell and Codexis Expand Collaboration to Develop Novel Enzymes for Next-Generation Biofuels
Turbine Truck Engines Working With Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University on Prototype Engine

Report from JCVI, CSIS and MIT Outlines Policy Options for Synthetic Genomics

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.

Resources

Comments

Jonas

Civil society organisations have criticized this document, supposedly because it doesn't take into account issues of ownership, because it focuses too narrowly on security applications and not on real societal risks, and because it didn't take an "independent" view on the emerging science field:

Especially the ETC Group, an NGO monitoring the responsible use of technology, has heavily criticized the text.

Check: October 18, 2007
Civil society organizations respond to report on synthetic biology governance

BlackSun

ETC Group seems to me to be an anti-technology front masquerading as a "safety" organization. It's vital that any consideration of risks of technology must be balanced against the risks of doing nothing.

The need is so great to find ways of producing second-generation biofuels, and ways to engage in bio and nano-remediation, our lives may literally depend on discoveries that are yet to be made in these areas. Any roadblocks to these technologies could cost lives--something the "go-slow" crowd never seems to acknowledge. With regard to synthetic biology and nanotechnology, of course reasonable safeguards are important. But let's be sure the goal is really safety, and not just scaring people into stopping developments ETC group doesn't like. An example of ETC's rhetoric:

Options for governing synthetic biology must not be set by the synthetic biologists themselves - broad societal debate on synbio's wider implications must come first. Synthetic microbes should be treated as dangerous until proven harmless and strong democratic oversight should be mandatory - not optional. Earlier this year the ETC Group recommended a ban on environmental release of de novo synthetic organisms until wide societal debate and strong governance are in place.

Democratic oversight of science? Who are these people kidding. We've seen how well that works with the Bush administration. What a blatant power grab they're advocating! You hear a lot of: "It won't work, and even if it does it's not a good idea."

ETC seems to be bothered most when it is not consulted. Which looks and smells like a bunch of irrelevant agitators trying to worm their way into becoming a science-controlling bureaucracy. I fail to see their qualifications or relevance. Just because they put out press releases we should listen to them? I'd rather see scientists self-regulate. After all, who better to understand the risks?

To me, because of their attempted meddling and their scaremongering, ETC has a major credibility problem.

gr

Big time bio-ethics here! Though not a field I have a great command of - it seems that setting a genetic baseline might be a reasonable first step. i.e. comparing synthetic bio-genetic inventions against the current and modeled evolution of natural systems.

By comparing a synthetic against actual or probable natural evolution (established to date) - we can build a point of departure from biogenetic "norms." Thus giving us a sense of how large or small these engineered systems alter our evolutionary continuum.

Oversight in these areas MUST be conducted by non-scientists as well as scientists. As the choices made in these life altering areas affect all members of a community - all members should have a voice in their development.

BlackSun
As the choices made in these life altering areas affect all members of a community - all members should have a voice in their development.

Kind of hard to do with science, since we don't know the character or ramifications of things that have yet to be discovered. How do you bring the unknown or little-known under "democratic" control without putting voting booths in every laboratory?

Ultimately this kind of naive neo-Luddism will always be with us, and science will keep making its discoveries in spite of these limiting philosophies. It would take world totalitarianism and 24/7 surveillance to stop the relentless human drive for learning and discovery. Too bad the neo-Luddites can't understand this.

In science, if it can be done, it will be done.

Cervus

BlackSun:

You and I disagree in a lot of places. But in this, we're completely on the same wavelength. To do as gr and ETC suggests would essentially halt all progress. And what we need right now are breakthroughs in liquid fuels and energy.

Speaking of new energy technologies, the Navy has decided to fund the next prototype for Polywell Fusion. I have very high hopes for this technology.

BlackSun

Cool, Cervus.

Likewise, I hope that fusion research bears fruit. There's not one problem in the world that wouldn't be made far less severe by a cheap and virtually unlimited source of energy like fusion.

Cervus

How about cheap desalination using carbon nanotubes.

Breakthroughs are all well and good, of course. But we should all remember that scientific progress more often goes: "Hey, that's funny..."

Ben

the potential for synthetic biology is beyond imagination, rightfully so to be cautious, but for producing biofuels with synthetic biology I don't see any serious ethic problems coming.

Azziz BAOUCHE

Dear Mr Steve Hanly,

I have taken a tour through your Website, and I am pleased to discover your know-how and am still curious to know more about your processes as far as green fleet management is concerned.

Accordingly, I am sking you help provide us with a sample of green car ploicy that we can implement to our fleet, and do our best to implement the green culture on the fleets of our customers.

Our company, LVSC Méditérranée, is an Algerian business specialized in fleet management and long term car rental for the purpose of larger companies. The core of our strategy is to build a long and profitable business rapport with companies that have major perspectives in their field of activity.

At present, there are major potentials in Algeria . In this regard, we are really looking forward to a partnership through which we can build up business together, but to have cost-effective solutions to help us be abreast of our major customers’ needs and demands.

I am expecting your reply for very soon, and I am hopefully if we can seize this chance to make the good choice.

Kind regards.

Mr Azziz BAOUCHE
Mobile: +213 550 666 667

LVSC Méditerranée
Zone Industrielle El Alia N° 49, Baba Ezzouar, Algiers, Algeria
Tel : (+213) 21 24 94 52
Fax : (+213) 21 24 52 86

aziba

I have taken a tour through your Website, and I am pleased to discover your know-how and am still curious to know more about your processes as far as green fleet management is concerned.

Accordingly, I am sking you help provide us with a sample of green car ploicy that we can implement to our fleet, and do our best to implement the green culture on the fleets of our customers.

we are a business concern in fleet management and long term car rental dedicated to larger companies. The core of our strategy is to build a long and profitable business rapport with companies that have major perspectives in their field of activity.

we are expecting your reply for very soon, and I am hopefully if we can seize this chance to make the good choice.

Kind regards.

The comments to this entry are closed.