Congress Holds Hearings on the Benefits and Risks of Synthetic Biology

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The US House of Representatives held hearings last week to gain testimony on the potential benefits and risks associated with synthetic biology and synthetic genomics.

The US House of Representatives held hearings last week to gain testimony on the potential benefits and risks associated with synthetic biology and synthetic genomics. The hearings follow news late last month that researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JVCI, Rockville, MD), a genomic-research organization founded and headed by J. Craig Venter, who helped map the human genome, had successfully constructed the first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell. Their work, according to JVCI researchers, provided a proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory, and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.

“The promise of synthetic biology does not diminish the importance of its being conducted and applied responsibly,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-MI), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, in a prepared statement. “As is true whenever science advances, we must weigh and manage the safety, health, and environmental risks posed by this evolving science.”

Testifying before the committee were Venter; Jay D. Keasling, acting deputy director at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, part of the Office of Science under the US Department of Energy; Drew Endy, assistant professor at Stanford University; Gregory E. Kaebnick, editor of the Hastings Center Report and associate for philosophical studies at the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute; and Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The Congressional hearings follow

by President Barack Obama last month to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to conduct a study of the potential medical, environmental, security, and other benefits from synthetic biology as well as potential health, security, or other risks. Obama made the request following the news from JVCI of its research and requested the commission to report back to him in six months.


Other recent actions by the federal government as it relates to synthetic biology were outlined in a memorandum to committee members. In March 2009, the National Institutes of Health proposed an update of its rDNA guidelines to clarify that they apply to synthetic DNA as well as recombinant DNA. In November 2009, the Department of Health and Human Services published recommendations for a screening framework to be used by producers of synthetic DNA products to prevent inappropriate development of select agents.

In his testimony, Venter concurred with the proposals by HHS to require DNA synthesis companies to screen synthesis requests against data on harmful agents. He also outlined studies conducted by JVCI to examine the bioethical and related concerns with synthetic genomics, including one with the Center for Strategic & International Studies and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that examined the risks and benefits of this emerging technology as well as possible safeguards to prevent abuse, including bioterrorism. In December of 2008, JCVI also received funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to examine ethical and societal concerns associated with the developing science of synthetic genomics.

Venter also pointed out the differences in the terms of “synthetic biology,” and “synthetic genomics.” He explained that they are commonly used interchangeably but are distinct. “Synthetic biology… is derived from engineering principles and is focused on the design and construction of biological parts (genes, pathways), devices (multiple parts), and systems (multiple devices). The chief aim of synthetic biology is to provide standardized sets of ‘parts’ that can be joined together in new ways in a living organism,” he said. “Synthetic genomics technologies, on the other hand, provide the capability to build whole genomes and can examine how best to organize them. While methods and tools for conducting synthetic biology have been available for many years, synthetic genomics is a completely new capability…”

In announcing their research findings last month, JVCI researchers said their work represented the construction of the largest synthetic molecule of a defined structure–almost double the size of a previously reported synthetically produced DNA molecule. With this proof of principle, JVCI will work on creating an organism that contains the minimal genome required to sustain itself and its replication, to be used as platform for analyzing the function of every essential gene in a cell. The company sees potential applications in the development of biofuels, industrial chemicals, and pharmaceuticals, including vaccines.

Related article:

A Step for Synthetic Biology (blog post)