What is synthetic biology? The field is so new, and so complex, that even those working at its frontiers cannot give a single definition.
“Synthetic biology represents only the latest link in a long chain of scientific innovation,” said Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania and the chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.
The creation of the first self-replicating synthetic cell last May prompted President Obama to seek the commission’s advice on the rapidly advancing field. Last week, Emory hosted the third and final meeting of the commission on synthetic biology, before the panel submits its recommendations in December.
“Imagine programmable, biological micro-factories, producing fuels and pharmaceuticals and fertilizers and food, materials and hormones and enzymes. Imagine the prospects even for genetic vaccinations,” said Emory President James Wagner, vice chair of the commission. “Of course, in addition to the excitement, there is a good deal of concern.”
What if organisms produced in laboratories are more robust than ones found in nature? Could we be interfering in the natural order of life? Could this new technology be used for malevolent purposes?
Over the course of the two-day meeting, the commission heard from experts, and members of the public, as it debated 19 provisional recommendations. One calls for an independent body to correct sensational claims in the media around synthetic biology. Another calls for federal agencies to regularly assess security and safety risks as the science advances.
Gutmann told the journal Nature that because synthetic biology is still in its infancy, “if our recommendations are followed, there will not be a ‘flash point’ that ignites public deadlock like we’ve seen in other areas of science.”
Click her to watch complete Web casts of the Nov. 16-17 meeting held at Emory.
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