- Labs need to be monitored, says American institute
- No framework in place to monitor projects
- Free labs in New York, Boston and San Francisco for ‘DIY’ biology
- Government ‘should assess’ DIY community
The Woodrow Wilson Centre, in Washington, US, warns that there is no way of monitoring labs tinkering with ‘synthetic biology’ to ensure that anything created is safe.
The field ‘synthetic biology’ came into being in 2010 when a scientist added synthetic DNA to a bacteria cell to create a ‘new’ life form. An Oxford ethicist warned that it opened the door to ‘the most powerful bioweapons imaginable’.
The Centre’s Synthetic Biology project has recommended a ‘score card’ to ensure laboratories adhere to guidelines laid down by a Presidential Commisision in 2010.
President Obama was presented with a report from the Commission’s 13 scientists in 2010, after billionaire entrepreneur Craig Venter created the world’s first artificial life form.
Since then, the field has changed. Worryingly, enthusiasts calling themselves ‘biohackers’ – and calling the field DIYBio – have begun experimenting with their own ‘synthetic biology’ projects, such as MIT graduate Kay Aull’s reprogramming of E Coli’s genome.
Free ‘Genspace’ biology labs have opened in New York, Boston and San Francisco, where scientists are provided with equipment to run their own experiments without regulation.
‘As the field progresses, the government should continue to assess specific security and safety risks of synthetic biology research in settings including the ‘do-it-yourself’ community,’ the report advised.
Valerie Bonham, executive director of the Commission, said, ‘In the report, the members emphasized the need for transparency, dialogue, and accountability around synthetic biology.’
President Obama requested the Commission’s report almost two years ago in response to the first ‘artificial life form’
Billionaire entrepreneur Craig Venter only created ‘artificial life’ for the first time in 2010, christening his life form ‘Synthia’.
Professor Julian Savulescu, an Oxford University ethicist, said of Venter’s discovery: ‘Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into its destiny.This could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable. The challenge is to eat the fruit without the worm.’
Could ‘artificial life’ pose a threat to humanity?
‘The Commission’s report was a landmark document and lays out a framework, but, like many reports of this type, no mechanisms were put in place to track progress,’ David Rejeski, director of the Wilson Centre’s Synthetic Biology Project, said.
‘Our goal is ensure that this report — and others like it – can drive change.’
The centre recommends a web-based ‘score card’ to highlight rogue synthetic biology projects.
‘The Scorecard, unveiled today, monitors the progress made toward implementing the recommendations in the report from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.’
The report contains 18 recommendations covering a range of topics from risk assessment to ethics education and public engagement.’