|Commission members discussing synthetic biology.|
On November 16 and 17, President Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues
announced its draft recommendations on the oversight and regulation of
synthetic biology. These recommendations were the long awaited response
to Craig Venter’s announcement in May 2010 that he and his team had created the world’s first organism with a fully synthetic genome.
Commission’s study supporting these recommendations, requested by the
President after Venter’s announcement, researched the implications of
synthetic biology, including potential benefits and risks of the
emerging technology. After two public meetings - one in July and one in
September - the commission used its third and final public hearing on
synthetic biology to announce and discuss its draft recommendations. The
recommendations have not yet been posted officially, but we have
transcribed them from the webcast of the November meeting, and are
making them available here.
Commission should be applauded for adopting an open and transparent
deliberation process when reviewing synthetic biology. All meetings were
open to the public and available as live and archived webcasts. The
Commission also intentionally reached out to civil society groups and
the public to submit comments throughout its deliberative process.
the nineteen draft recommendations released in mid-November are far
from the precautionary policies needed to protect the environment and
public’s health from the novel risks posed by synthetic biology. Instead
of looking to the precautionary principle, the Commission coined its
own approach to emerging technologies, which it terms “prudent
vigilance.” The precautionary principle, which would require that
products of synthetic biology are shown to be safe before being released
into the environment, has legal precedence in a number of international
treaties and conventions, such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
“Prudent vigilance,” as described by the Commission, has no legal
standing and appears to be not much more than “business-as-usual” with a
few soft recommendations to be careful as synthetic biology races
Precaution is necessary in the oversight of synthetic
biology because the risks to the environment, public health, and social
justice are unknown. Until the industry can show beyond a reasonable
doubt that this technology is safe, it should not be used outside the
The Commission asserts that the risks of synthetic
biology are theoretical since the technology is still in its infancy,
but then goes on to endorse the potential benefits of the clean fuels
and life-saving medicines that boosters say synthetic biology will
produce as if they were fully developed and on the market already. But
they cannot have it both ways. The current and future risks and benefits
of synthetic biology must be analyzed before synthetic organisms are
released into the environment or used commercially. This would allow
policymakers to establish the necessary regulations to ensure that the
environment, public health, and social justice are protected and risks
are avoided or mitigated. It would also provide time for an open
societal discussion about the appropriate and inappropriate uses of
synthetic biology before the industry has decided for the public.
civil society groups have called for a moratorium on the release and
commercial use of synthetic organisms until proper review of their
environmental, public health, and socio-economic risks have been done,
and until the necessary regulations have been established.
Thankfully, there is still time to comment on these draft recommendations. Email [email protected]
and tell the Commission that if we do not properly regulate
developments in synthetic biology now it will be too late once synthetic
organisms have leaked into the environment.
Eric Hoffman is
the biotechnology policy campaigner for Friends of the Earth; this
report is cross-posted on the FoE blog. To learn more about FoE’s work
on synthetic biology, visit their webpage and read their new report on the dangers synthetic biology for biofuels production.