Ventner Writes Agenda for First Bioethics Commission Meeting

Science published a study today from a research group that has successfully used synthetic DNA to generate self-replicating cells of a bacterium (H/T Wired Science).  The synthetic DNA replaced the native DNA.  The research groups is part of the J. Craig Ventner Institute, which has focused a significant amount of its work on advances in synthetic biology.  Instead of manipulating existing DNA, synthetic biology develops the DNA from scratch.  This result comes two years after the Ventner Institute was able to develop a synthetic genome.

In a letter dated today (H/T ScienceInsider), President Obama has directed the head of his bioethics commission, Dr. Amy Gutmann, to conduct a six month study on the implications of this specific development and other advances in this field of research.  The president has also directed his science adviser to communicate specifics about the scope of the study to Dr. Gutmann.

While many are hailing the replication as a significant breakthrough, others are not as impressed.  For one thing, while it is described in some circles as synthetic life, the new life has a synthetic inside housed within a pre-existing bacterium shell.  For another, there are related projects involving higher lifeforms that may deserve greater attention from a policy perspective.

Synthetic biology is not a brand-new field, and you can argue that it is an offshoot of genetic engineering – distinct simply in the degree of engineering.  Ventner has an established ability to attract public attention with his work; an ability that some have considered disproportionate to the work.  I’m not surprised that an examination of the field, its benefits and ethical challenges was prompted by Ventner’s institute.  My humble recommendation is to further plumb the similarities and differences between synthetic biology and genetic engineering (which has a history of policy and ethical choices that should inform the proposed study) as anyone moves forward with this work.

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