Thursday, August 11, 2011
Genetic engineering got an uptick recently when biologists began creating synthetic organisms that will henceforth compete with humans for natural resources, prompting a Presidential Commission to advise "prudent vigilance." Last year, J. Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith and Clyde Hutchison created the first synthetic bacterial cell capable of self-replication, and the race was on between nature-made and man-made organisms.
President Obama immediately formed a commission to study the impact of synthetic biology and to make recommendations. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues makes the recommendation of "prudent vigilance" according to Amy Gutmann, chairman of a report entitled The Ethics of Synthetic Biology: Guiding Principles for Emerging Technologies
Gutmann's report discusses the Presidential Commission for The Hastings Center, where several other leading scientists have also provided commentary on the merits and risks of synthetic organisms competing with natural organisms in the environment. According to Gutmann, no new regulations are needed to police synthetic biology, but that "responsible stewardship requires that existing federal agencies conduct an ongoing and coordinated review of the field’s risks, benefits and moral objections as it matures."
One of the biggest arguments in favor of synthetic organisms is the ability to move beyond mere genetic engineering into a space populated entirely by new biological processes that could serve humans by producing, for instance, synthetic fuels. In that vein, Agilent Technologies recently became the first industry member of the University of California at Berkeley Synthetic Biology Institute (SBI). There, top researchers in health, medicine, energy and new materials will balance the benefits of synthetic organisms against their threat to the environment.
The three pillars of Synthetic Biology according to the European Conference on Synthetic Biology.
Agilent has made a multi-year, multi-million dollar commitment to assist the SBI researchers with its high-precision measurement tools and assaying algorithms including the active participation of its staff of engineers and scientists. Also contributing to SBI's efforts will be the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), which will assist in translating research findings into organisms that can produce fruitful industrial processes, products and technologies.
Currently, SBI employs 33 scientists from eight departments at UC-Berkeley and four divisions of LBNL. Projects already underway include synthetic organisms that produce inexpensive drugs, biofuels and entities that directly attack cancer cells and which aid in the purification of water, increase agricultural yields, remediate pollutants and create new miracle materials.
The genie is out of the bottle, according to William P. Sullivan, Agilent CEO and president, who issued the following statement at the announcement of Agilent's joining SBI: "Synthetic biology potentially can have as profound an impact in the 21st century as semiconductor technology had in the 20th."
SBI is led by LBNL professor Adam Arkin who is the acting director, working with associate director Douglas Clark, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and executive associate dean of the College of Chemistry at UC Berkeley.
Posted by R. Colin Johnson at 2:05 PM