Science of man-made life can proceed: US panel (Update 2)

Dec 16, 2010 by Kerry Sheridan
This undated handout illustration shows the DNA double helix. The White House on Thursday said the controversial field of synthetic biology, or manipulating the DNA of organisms to forge new life forms, poses limited risks and should be allowed to proceed.

A White House panel said on Thursday the controversial field of synthetic biology, or manipulating the DNA of organisms to forge new life forms, poses limited risks and should be allowed to proceed.

An expert commission convened by President Barack Obama advised vigilance and self-regulation as scientists seek ways to create new organisms that could spark useful innovations in clean energy, pollution control and medicine.

Critics, including environmental advocates, accused the panel of not taking their concerns seriously and said that allowing science to police itself was tantamount to offering no oversight at all.

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues "concluded that synthetic biology is capable of significant but limited achievements posing limited risks," it said in its first report.

"Future developments may raise further objections, but the commission found no reason to endorse additional federal regulations or a moratorium on work in this field at this time."

The 13-member panel of scientists, ethicists and public policy experts was created by Obama last year.

Its first order of business was to consider the issue of synthetic biology after the J. Craig Venter Institute announced in May it had developed the first self-replicating bacteria cell controlled by a synthetic genome.

Those opposed to Venter's techniques said the discovery was tantamount to "playing God," and creating novel organisms that could be dumped into the environment without adequate understanding of the ramifications.

Announcing the creation of the "first synthetic cell," lead researcher Craig Venter said at the time it "certainly changed my views of the definitions of life and how life works."

Dr. Craig Venter, founder, chairman, and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute participates in a discussion on Capitol Hill. The J. Craig Venter Institute announced in May 2010 it had developed the first self-replicating bacteria cell controlled by a synthetic genome.

But the commission said Venter's team had not actually created life, since the work mainly involved altering an already existing life form.

"Thoughtful deliberation about the meaning of this achievement was impossible in the hours that elapsed between the breaking news and the initial round of commentaries that ensued," it said in its report.

"Of note, many scientists observe that this achievement is not tantamount to 'creating life' in a scientific sense because the research required a functioning, naturally occurring host cell to accept the synthesized genome."

Commission chair Amy Gutmann said the panel considered a range of approaches to regulating the new scientific field, from allowing unbridled freedom to imposing strict government regulation on experiments.

"We chose a middle course to maximize public benefits while also safeguarding against risks," she said.

"Prudent vigilance suggests that federal oversight is needed and can be exercised in a way that is consistent with scientific progress."

As to the risk of releasing modified organisms into nature, a scenario some have warned could spark biological threats or damage to the ecosystem, "scientists and ethicists advised careful monitoring and review of the research," the panel said.

The panel also urged greater cooperation among federal agencies that oversee product licensing and funding of synthetic biology, and collaboration with world governments and global groups like the World Health Organization.

"Educational classes on the ethical dilemmas raised by synthetic biology should be a mandatory part of training for young researchers, engineers, and others who work in this emerging field," it added.

A spokesman in the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy said the Obama administration was "grateful" for the report and highlighted the panel's conclusion that no new regulatory bodies were needed.

"We appreciate the commission's main conclusion that synthetic biology does not currently pose novel safety or ethical issues that require the creation of new oversight bodies," the spokesman said.

A coalition of 58 groups from 22 countries sent a letter of protest to the panel, saying "this process has not resulted in recommendations that recognize the serious threats synthetic biology pose to the environment, workers' health, public health, and social justice."

"We are disappointed that 'business as usual' has won out over precaution in the commission's report," said Eric Hoffman, biotechnology policy campaigner for Friends of the Earth and of the signatories.

"Self-regulation equates to no regulation."

Explore further: Bioengineering study finds two-cell mouse embryos already talking about their future

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User comments : 28

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Blakut
1 / 5 (5) Dec 16, 2010
Playing GOD? Damn right, God's playing us!
Francisco_Alvarado
3.3 / 5 (6) Dec 16, 2010
Very nice
Quantum_Conundrum
1.5 / 5 (24) Dec 16, 2010
No regulaton whatsoever is a bit ridiculous. We know from current events that terrorists will use anything they can get their hands on.

This means that when a fanatic learns how to make a virus or a bacterial capable of destroying western civilization, based on history, they WILL attempt it.

We need some way of ensuring that people working in this field are not muslims and that they aren't using this technology to try to kill the rest of us.
JRDarby
4.4 / 5 (14) Dec 16, 2010
"We need some way of ensuring that people working in this field are not muslims and that they aren't using this technology to try to kill the rest of us."

... you're kidding right?
Modernmystic
1.3 / 5 (8) Dec 16, 2010
Man-made life...pffft. Even if you don't believe in God it's like saying because the Japanese can make them that they invented cars....
Corban
4.2 / 5 (9) Dec 16, 2010
We upset the natural order the moment we broadly used all forms of burnination to heat our houses, drive our mechanical horses and travel across the world. Clearly we're okay with that, so "playing God" should be an invalid claim.

Also, God has epic level magic. We don't...yet. Come back in a few hundred years, and maybe this complaint may be true.
thales
4.5 / 5 (10) Dec 16, 2010
Man-made life...pffft. Even if you don't believe in God it's like saying because the Japanese can make them that they invented cars....


I think what you're implying is like saying Karl Friedrich Benz didn't invent the car because he used existing materials and technology.
jscroft
1.7 / 5 (7) Dec 16, 2010
Self-regulation? Did the Obama administration just propose SELF-regulation?

How is it that these fools insist on regulating every aspect of our PRIVATE lives, yet on the topic of the creation of synthetic life they advise researchers to regulate themselves?
Skeptic_Heretic
4.3 / 5 (7) Dec 16, 2010
Man-made life...pffft. Even if you don't believe in God it's like saying because the Japanese can make them that they invented cars....
It's life that we build in a lab. It is in fact man-made life.
The White House on Thursday said the controversial field of synthetic biology, or manipulating the DNA of organisms to forge new life forms, poses limited risks and should be allowed to proceed.
I don't see how the whitehouse could say this. The potential dangers are entirely unknown, and in some instances unknowable.

This should be a comparitive statement like "the potential dangers are many fold, however, the potential benefits are great and offset the risks associated."
How is it that these fools insist on regulating every aspect of our PRIVATE lives, yet on the topic of the creation of synthetic life they advise researchers to regulate themselves?
Would you want Holdren telling these people what to do? The man is a knob.
gwrede
3.8 / 5 (4) Dec 16, 2010
The Obama administration made the right choice, for the wrong reasons. Calling the research risk-free is simplistic. While there may not be any obvious risks (in the first years) of inadvertent destruction, the risk involving malicious research (on a few years longer perspective), is definitely nonzero.

In other words, the situation is like nuclear research, which could aim for therapies and power plants, or for weapons.

The real reason to green-light the research is (or at least should be) that this is what other nations will do anyway, so the US has to do it, at least "for self-defense". Otherwise they risk becoming the banana republic of the next century. That is how big a deal this actually is.
Modernmystic
2.1 / 5 (7) Dec 16, 2010
It's life that we build in a lab. It is in fact man-made life.


I suppose. No way in hell we could have made it without the blueprints already provided for us though so I wouldn't be breaking my arm slapping our collective backs too much...
krundoloss
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 16, 2010
Anyone Seen the movie Splice? I like the idea of creating organisms for purposes like clean energy. Just dont give them a Stinger!
Skeptic_Heretic
4.7 / 5 (7) Dec 16, 2010
It's life that we build in a lab. It is in fact man-made life.


I suppose. No way in hell we could have made it without the blueprints already provided for us though so I wouldn't be breaking my arm slapping our collective backs too much...

Well you can say that of everything that is "man-made". We simply take our queues from the world around us.
krundoloss
5 / 5 (3) Dec 16, 2010
Well, we have made designer bacteria and viruses as biological weapons in lab settings, I guess full organisms would probably be safer than that. Containment is Extremely important.
resinoth
1.7 / 5 (3) Dec 16, 2010
13 people decided this, and those 13 were picked by one dude.

DE-CENTRALIZE the GOVERNMENT, FELLOWS!
Kingsix
5 / 5 (2) Dec 16, 2010
We need some way of ensuring that people working in this field are not muslims and that they aren't using this technology to try to kill the rest of us.

Wow you are paranoid, How about saying we need a way of ensuring that anyone with bad intentions or large egos are allowed to work on this stuff. Some white nerd who thinks that his university doctorate means that he infallible. I am much more worried about someone with a big ego creating something bad then someone doing something on purpose.
How long will it be before someone creates an organism that mutates and starts turning us all into zombies.
Quantum_Conundrum
1.3 / 5 (3) Dec 16, 2010
How long will it be before someone creates an organism that mutates and starts turning us all into zombies.


Apparantly in 20 to 50 years nanotechnology will allow synthetic neurons. Perhaps we will all be "The Borg" at that time.
Raveon
4.7 / 5 (3) Dec 16, 2010
It isn't man made life unless it wasn't alive until we made it, this was already alive. It is, like much before, man modified life. As far as risk goes it is probably inversely proportional to the size of the organism.

Knowledge is a staircase where each stair is built on the stair before it. You can't stop this knowledge without stopping all research. It will be available to anyone sooner or later. As the staircase gets higher, the lower steps of knowledge become increasingly available to more people. This is why we can't afford to have enemies like Al Queda, they will INEVITABLY acquire the means to do us great harm if not destroy us. Couple that with our inability to destroy all our enemies and do the math. We are headed down a road of self-destruction. If we can't make our enemies our friends we have to at least make them lose the desire to kill us.

Kingsix
4 / 5 (1) Dec 16, 2010
It isn't man made life unless it wasn't alive until we made it, this was already alive. It is, like much before, man modified life.


Radiolab show called "(So-Called) Life" explores this pretty well. The described it very well in a section about student who modified E-coli to smell better, they called it directed evolution.
komone
4 / 5 (1) Dec 16, 2010
Interesting to me that we are no longer, as when I was younger, having to debate the question "What is Life?". Finally, it seems, there is consensus on acceptance that it's an emergent product of (complex) biochemical machinery. That, by itself, is an excellent step forward in our communal philosophy. 'Grats to all on that :)
SteveL
4 / 5 (1) Dec 17, 2010
We are an inquisitive species. This research will be done. There will be many failures and some of this research will be dangerous to humanity. Considering the issue with the release of africanized bees I'm agreeing with Krundoloss "Containment is Extremely important."

I think it's a mistake to not have governmental regulations at the very least concerning oversight of storage, handling, containment and sample destruction. People get lazy and organizations get sloppy. The possibility of release of un-natural biologics could have unforseen devastating effects on natural biologics. There may be a lot to gain, but there is also a lot to lose. Awareness of this should suggest a certain degree of cautious progress.
natetuvkok
1 / 5 (1) Dec 18, 2010
Anybody think someone will make zombies for population control.
LuckyBrandon
1.5 / 5 (4) Dec 19, 2010
@QC-I'm vastly disappointed...

Knowledge is a staircase where each stair is built on the stair before it. You can't stop this knowledge without stopping all research. It will be available to anyone sooner or later. As the staircase gets higher, the lower steps of knowledge become increasingly available to more people. This is why we can't afford to have enemies like Al Queda, they will INEVITABLY acquire the means to do us great harm if not destroy us. Couple that with our inability to destroy all our enemies and do the math. We are headed down a road of self-destruction. If we can't make our enemies our friends we have to at least make them lose the desire to kill us.



you can see, yet so blind...enemies like al qaeda are nothing, less than nothing in fact...they aren't even the real enemy, merely pawns. the enemy is the larger governments funding them and coming up with their plans for them (those more complicated than blowing themselves up like morons anyways)
210
1 / 5 (2) Dec 19, 2010
There must be, there has to be DNA and or genomes TOO DANGEROUS to exist in our time for reasons we could hardly fathom. We truly need to know just what was 'selected out' before we bring it or a near relative 'back-in'!
Further, IF, IF, this is all about money/product development WE ARE FOOLS and deserve our fate - no vision or foresight? Ignore history cause it is behind us?? Hate God??? You ARE going to need Him after all is said and done!!
SoulmanOtto
1.3 / 5 (6) Dec 19, 2010
Man-made life...pffft. Even if you don't believe in God it's like saying because the Japanese can make them that they invented cars....
Actually MM, god invented the horse, man invented the Porsche... see the difference? We have so much to look forward to. We'll soon be able to fix people like the following:
You ARE going to need Him after all is said and done!!
'The end of the world is nigh!!!' I am so glad the world isn't run by people like you. Not any more. Not ever again.
SoulmanOtto
1.5 / 5 (6) Dec 19, 2010
I wasn't trying to insult you MM, I was talking about the lost soul 210.
Ober
2 / 5 (2) Dec 19, 2010
As many have said, this isn't creation of life from scratch. It's biological hacking!!!! Take a system that already works, then hack it to perform other features.
When you can create a whole life form (bacteria) from bottles of non-living chemical ingredients off the shelf, then we have created life!!
However, having said all this, I think there are many benefits from bio-hacking, providing suicide genes are in every creation. BUT, what about evolution?? Will the synthetic bacteria get sick of dying and hence eliminate the suicide genes??? So how do we stop evolution in these creations????
Ethelred
5 / 5 (1) Dec 20, 2010
Karl Friedrich Benz didn't invent the car
He didn't. He invented the MOTORCYCLE. Well he made a motorcycle before a car anyway.

Ethelred

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