Last May many became familiar with the field of synthetic biology after a group from the J. Craig Venter Institute produced the first organism with a synthesized genome. Prompted by this announcement President Obama asked the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to prepare a report describing this field and recommendations for how the federal government should be involved in this type of research. This report was issued in December, though I just got around to reading it recently. While writing this up I decided the recommendations deserved a closer reading and description, and will get second post a bit later. This post will focus on the background information, which made up about 2/3 of the report. These chapters described the science involved, possible benefits and risks, and already existing oversight that would be relevant.
I was very impressed with the chapter on the science. I found this section to be a good overview of the field that would probably be understandable even by people with very little knowledge of molecular biology. One point it made was that because this field is still fairly new and involves a variety of types of work it is kind of hard to have a good definition of what exactly constitutes synthetic biology. This description seems fairly apt though:
Whereas standard biology treats the structure and chemistry of living things as natural phenomena to be understood and explained, synthetic biology treats biochemical processes, molecules, and structures as raw materials and tools to be used in novel and potentially useful ways, often quite independent of their natural roles.
The report made a distinction between the “top-down” approach of removing or adding traits by transferring DNA to get organisms to carry out functions versus the “bottom-up” approach of creating novel systems from scratch, which is at a much earlier stage of development right now. It describes how this research is a progression from the ability to manipulate genetic material that was first developed in the 1970s and has become routine enough that it was part the of the labs taught in my freshman biology course as an undergrad. So while work like was done at the Venter Institute may seem dramatic, it’s really one step in work that’s been going on for a while.
The next chapter looked at the variety of applications that synthetic biology is likely to be used in – such as energy production, medical care, agriculture and security. It pointed out that energy is likely to be the first application, and in fact is already nearing the ability for commercial development. Other applications are at a much earlier stage of research. This section struck a good balance of describing the benefits without overselling possibilities, and pointing out the possible risks and what approaches are being taken to safeguard against these possible harms.
The last chapter of background info went into a fairly detailed description of the various government agencies that have oversight responsibilities that could include research in synthetic biology. These range from some of the obvious agencies such the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration, to maybe less obvious ones such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) oversight over laboratory work safety. I’ll admit I got a little bogged down going through the various organizations with different, and sometimes overlapping responsibilities. However it was a good insight into how (at least at this early stage) this type of research can fit into regulations already in place for manipulating biological material, though it acknowledged the possibility as new applications are developed it’s more likely areas will open up where additional regulation may make sense.
With this background information presented the report went on to describe the commission’s recommendations for how the federal government should proceed. As I said this will get it’s own right up in a later post.