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Obama’s “Sputnik Moment”

Dubbing it our generation’s “Sputnik moment” in his State of the Union Address this week, President Obama called for more research and incentives to help our country break its dependence on oil with biofuels.

Just last month the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released its report examining the potential risks and benefits of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is an emerging field of research that relies on chemically synthesized DNA, along with standardized and automatable processes, to create new biochemical systems or organisms with novel or enhanced characteristics.

In the report, New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies, the commission discussed the possible applications of synthetic biology, including use for the production of biofuels.

Biofuels and related products produced through synthetic biology offer the potential to reduce global dependence on fossil fuel, cut harmful emissions, and minimize economic and political volatility surrounding fossil fuel reserves. Some biofuels produced with synthetic biology processes are expected to be available commercially within the next few years. Other research may not yield commercial products for a decade or more.

The various synthetic biology alternatives to current biofuel production methods include producing cellulosic ethanol (derived from cell walls rather than corn) and manufacturing other bioalcohols with synthetically manipulated biomass. Biofuel can also be produced from modified algae that use the natural process of photosynthesis to manufacture bio-oils, such as biodiesel, more easily than current chemical processes.

To complete its work, the commission held public forums in three cities and received input from more than 36 experts in various fields and the public. Commission Chair, Amy Gutmann briefed the White House prior to the report’s public release on December 16 regarding the 18 identified recommendations. These recommendations, consistent with President Obama’s charge, offer suggestions to ensure that America reaps the benefits of the developing field within appropriate ethical boundaries.

President Obama requested the report last May and gave the commission six months to complete its work and recommend how the developing field of synthetic biology and related biotechnologies can best maximize public benefits, minimize risks, and observe appropriate ethical boundaries.

To reach its recommendations, the commission identified five ethical principles relevant to considering the social implications of emerging technologies. These principles should be understood as provisional guideposts.

The ideal of public beneficence is to act to maximize public benefits and minimize public harm. The principle of responsible stewardship reflects a shared obligation among members of the domestic and global communities to act in ways that demonstrate concern for those who are not in a position to represent themselves (e.g., children and future generations) and for the environment in which future generations will flourish or suffer. Democracies depend on intellectual freedom coupled with the responsibility of individuals and institutions to use their creative potential in morally accountable ways. The principle of democratic deliberation reflects an approach to collaborative decision-making that embraces respectful debate of opposing views and active participation by citizens. Last, the principle of justice and fairness relates to the distribution of benefits and burdens across society.

After immersing itself in the state of the science and social ethics concerns, the commission decided to endorse neither a moratorium on synthetic biology until all risks are identified and mitigated, nor unfettered freedom for synthetic biology’s scientific exploration. The commission determined instead that the field of synthetic biology can proceed responsibly by embracing a middle ground — an ongoing process of prudent vigilance that carefully monitors, identifies, and mitigates potential harms over time.

The commission believes that prudent vigilance will prove to be a valuable approach to the assessment of risks related to synthetic biology and other emerging technologies. Initial reaction to the concept from a variety of individuals representing different perspectives in biotechnology and its regulation has been largely favorable.

The commission called for a coordinated approach for risk assessment across the government. It recommended that no synthetic organism be released into the environment without reasonable risk assessment which, as with many products of genetic engineering today, may require specific review or may not require new analysis because of determinations of substantial equivalence to existing products. Reliable containment and control mechanisms should be identified as necessary, and could include “suicide genes” or other types of self-destruction triggers that could place a limit on the life spans of synthetic organisms.

Synthetic biology is a field in its infancy; therefore ongoing review by the federal government should be conducted to stay current with both the benefits and risks of the science as it develops. In addition, there needs to be better and more frequent public education and engagement on emerging ethical and technical issues in synthetic biology and science generally. While current existing regulations that cover synthetic biology and its products are built on long-standing practices that have adapted to new technologies over time, further restructuring may be required as the applications of synthetic biology grow and their consequences are better understood.

The commission’s report, while extensive, is by no means the final word on how government should approach synthetic biology and other emerging technologies. The report is just the start to such a discussion. What must happen now is continued public engagement on synthetic biology and action by the federal government on many levels. It is very important that we, as a society, continue to hear the views of a range of people working on or interested in synthetic biology. In addition, the commission has recommended that the government continually review the advances in synthetic biology as the science unfolds.

This commission appreciates its ability to contribute to the public dialogue surrounding synthetic biology while it is in an early stage of development and looks forward to being involved in and contributing to the ethical inquiry of emerging technologies and synthetic biology in the future.

Valerie Bonham, J.D., is the executive director of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

Published on: January 28, 2011
Published in: Emerging Biotechnology, Science and Society

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