A Presidential commission tasked to explore ethical issues associated with man-made life has held initial meetings to better understand the matter and begin figuring out whether additional regulations are needed for the burgeoning new field.
In May, J. Craig Venter and colleagues reported creating a self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell, a landmark achievement that many believe represents the dawn of an era in which man can create brand-new organisms that produce drugs and fuels, and perhaps gobble up oil spills on the cheap.
The report prompted President Obama to organize the commission. He has asked it to produce recommendations within 6 months.
Venter attended the opening meetings himself. He suggested that researchers in the field could, perhaps, produce seed stock for a flu vaccine in just 12 hours. “With rapid DNA sequencing, we can predict, we think, well in advance what the changes will be for next year’s flu before the WHO even makes the decision as to the vaccine stocks,” he told BurrillReport.
Venter added that synthetic biologists could also potentially cause harm—as by producing new, highly lethal viruses. Venter insisted however that such behavior could “be readily prevented by some straightforward regulations.”
Kristala Prather, a Chemical Engineering professor at MIT concurred that, that although the potential benefits are large, so too are the risks. “Because there is this information gap between what we understand about biology and what our capabilities are, it is impossible to predict what’s going to happen in every experiment,” she told GenomeWeb News.
The commission will hold more meetings in September and November.