Penn-led Bioethics Commission makes recommendation on synthetic biology

Bioethics Commission Photo Credit: Stuart Watson

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, chaired by Penn President Amy Gutmann, today released its first report—a wide-ranging review of the emerging field of synthetic biology—and made 18 recommendations to President Barack Obama, calling for "prudent vigilance" in regulating the field.

The Commission, comprised of 13 scientists, ethicists and public policy experts, including Penn Law Professor Anita Allen, said that the very newness of the science, which involves the design and construction of human-made biological parts, gives regulators, ethicists and others time to identify problems early on, and craft solutions that can harness the technology for the public good. Gutmann presented the Commission’s recommendations to John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and other senior White House officials on Dec. 14.

“We comprehensively reviewed the developing field of synthetic biology to understand both its rewards and risks,” Gutmann says. “We chose an approach to regulation that maximizes public benefits while also safeguarding against risks. This approach recognizes the great potential of synthetic biology, including lifesaving medicines, and the still-distant risks posed by the field.”

The Commission encouraged federal oversight that will facilitate scientific progress. During the group’s three hearings, held over the past five months in Washington, Philadelphia and Atlanta, the Commission heard from more than 35 ethicists, scientists and others close to the issue and considered a range of possible actions the government could take to mitigate current and future risks.

Invited experts explained potential benefits from synthetic biology, including the development of vaccines and new drugs and the production of biofuels that could someday reduce the need for fossil fuels. The experts included three Penn faculty members: Arthur Caplan, the Emmanuel and Robert Hart Professor of Bioethics and director of the Center for Bioethics; Jonathan Moreno, the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor of Ethics and Professor of Medical Ethics and of History and Sociology of Science; and David Weiner, associate professor of Pathology and Lab Medicine.

The Commission’s deliberations, which were open to the public, considered the risks posed by the technology, including the inadvertent release of a human-constructed organism into nature and the potential adverse effects on ecosystems. To reduce any possible threat, some scientists and ethicists advised careful monitoring and review of the research.

President Obama asked the Commission to study the implications of synthetic biology following the May 20 announcement by the J. Craig Venter Institute that it had inserted a human-constructed genome into a bacterial cell, creating an organism not found in nature.

A summary of the Commission’s recommendations and a copy of the report are available on the Commission's website at Additional coverage of the Commission’s report is available at The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA TODAY, Nature and Science (some of these sites may require registration).


Originally published on December 16, 2010