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Presidential commission finalizing recommendations on synthetic biology

Group15.JPGConcluding its third and final public meeting on synthetic biology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues yesterday debated 19 provisional recommendations that will form the basis of a report expected to go to President Obama next month.

The commission’s delving into the controversial area was spurred by the May publication of a synthetic bacterial genome by Craig Venter and colleagues, which prompted Obama to ask the commissioners to study the issue as their first order of business.

Guided by five self-declared ethical principles, including “responsible stewardship,” the 13-member commission agreed provisionally to recommend, among other things, that an entity within the White House develop a clear, defined and coordinated approach to synthetic biology research and development. The idea would be for a coordinating body within the Executive Office of the President to synchronize research across federal agencies, as well as ensure that regulatory requirements are consistent and non-contradictory. It would also be tasked with staying abreast of international developments — and periodically and on a timely basis informing the public of its findings.


The commission’s provisional recommendations include a call for an authoritative, independent body — something like a biological version of factcheck.org — to challenge and correct sensational claims in the media around synthetic biology.

The group also concluded that it was important not to segregate or alienate the do-it-yourself community. Another of its provisional recommendations calls for a White House level office “informed by the current work of the FBI and other federal agencies” to undertake and peridocally update a public gap analysis. The analysis would assess the specific security and safety risks of synthetic biology research in both institutional and non-institutional settings.

Amy Gutmann, the chair of the commission, (pictured at front row center) told Nature that because syntheic biology is still in it’s 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.”

In the next several weeks, the commission will be finalizing the details of its recommendations, with the aim of having a report for President Obama completed on 15 December.

Gutmann, who is president of the University of Pennsylvania, also spoke with Nature this summer about what she sees as the commission’s broader role.

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