Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Hearing testimony from a group of diverse experts from the fields of bioethics, theology, law, technology transfer, engineering, and various fields in science and medicine, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues met at Penn on September 13-14.

At the two-day meeting, the Commission, chaired by Penn President Amy Gutmann, undertook a further examination of the risks and benefits of the developing field of synthetic biology, following its charge from President Obama in May. Commission members heard from experts about the practice of synthetic biology and the prospects of translating it into useful discoveries. They also listened to philosophical and theological perspectives on the issue; views on social responsibility and stewardship; a discussion of risk assessment and ethics; and details on biosafety and security issues.

“By taking a deliberative, open approach, by sharing well-reasoned perspectives, and by robustly deliberating about matters of public importance, we will move closer to making recommendations that will serve the public good,” Dr. Gutmann said at the outset of the meeting.

Three Penn faculty members shared their expertise with the commission: Bioethicist Arthur L. Caplan, David B. Weiner, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and PIK professor Jonathan D. Moreno. Penn Law professor Anita L. Allen is a member of the Commission.

Perhaps the most distinguished of the Commission’s invited guests was Nobel Laureate and Lasker Award winner Sydney Brenner, Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Crick-Jacobs Center at the Salk Institute. Dr. Brenner discovered messenger RNA along with Francis Crick in 1961.

He offered the Commission some reflections on synthetic biology’s impact on science and medicine, saying that there have been incremental developments in the field over the last several years, but only with more development could these technologies “become a sensible area full of promise.”

“What’s missing is how we put all of this together in a way that functions and is of use in the real world,” he said. “We only have very crude ways of putting these into a device.”

The Commission’s third meeting will be held at Emory University, in Atlanta, in November. The Commission’s report to President Obama on synthetic biology is due at the end of the year. A video of the Commission’s proceedings as well as more information is available at

Photography by Stuart A. Watson and Scott H. Spitzer.