On May 27, in response to the recent announcement that scientists had created the first microbe with a man-made genome, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee heard expert testimony on the scientific and ethical implications of synthetic biology. During the hearing, representatives sought to understand the emerging technology’s benefits and risks.
A cell reprogrammed
“It is the first cell whose parent is in a computer,” said J. Craig Venter, founder of the J. Craig Venter Institute and one of the first to sequence the human genome.
Starting with only “four bottles of chemicals” and a genetic blueprint encoded into the files of their computers, Venter and his team synthetically created an organism’s genetic code, spelling out a genome with more than 1 million letters of DNA. They even encoded into the organism’s DNA their names, quotations from literature and other identifying markers.
After synthesizing the genome, the scientists replaced the DNA of the bacteria Mycobacterium capricolum with their man-made set of genetic instructions, just as one might install a new operating system on a computer.
The revamped cell took on the characteristics encoded in its new set of genes.
“It’s not life from scratch,” Venter said, “but we can now write new software of life.”
Members of the committee expressed excitement about the potential benefits of synthetic genomics.
“Synthetic biology will be a major frontier in the 21st century,” said U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn.
U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the committee, agreed. He said that genetic engineering research has had amazing effects over the decades, noting that it has been used to make insulin, vaccines and other important medical advances.
“While most research involves one-celled organisms like bacteria or yeast, the results are far reaching,” Waxman said.
Committee members also were encouraged by the research’s potential applications for clean energy technologies.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., asked Jay Keasling, acting deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, about research that uses yeast to produce diesel fuel from sugar cane.
The process is “akin to brewing beer,” said Keasling, who anticipates his team will soon be able to produce fuel in this manner at competitive prices.
“We can innovate our way out of this problem,” said U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., referring to issues surrounding the continued use of fossil fuels.
But Venter was more cautious. “I am an optimist and a scientist,” he said, emphasizing that that new applications will need to be proved and may be a decade away from the marketplace.
Weighing the risks
Meanwhile, several members of the committee expressed concern about the potential misuse of the technology.
“Advancements in science must be balanced by strict ethical guidelines,” said Frank Pallone, D-N.J.
Pointing to a “culture of responsibility,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, outlined some of the oversight mechanisms that exist for similar research.
Fauci said that, while current regulations don’t specifically address synthetic biology, the NIH recently drafted new guidelines and is soliciting public feedback. He also noted that the private sector has created best practices that are nearly universally implemented.
“People with nefarious motives don’t need synthetic biology,” Fauci said, noting that it would be much easier to cause harm using other methods. He cautioned against creating new and restrictive regulations.
Synthetic biology “doesn’t add much to the ability to do bad stuff” and has “much greater applicability to do something really good,” Fauci said.
Driven by basic science
Keasling and other experts agreed the breakthroughs by Venter’s team and others underscored the importance of basic science.
The technologies that made those discoveries possible were based on basic science research and funding, Keasling said, noting how difficult it is to get funding to carry out foundational research.
Venter said that research investments would continue to be “one of the most important economic drivers for the future.”
Challenging the government to play a more active role in creating innovative technologies, Venter said the federal government needs to rethink the way it funds research.
“Federal funding follows innovations; it seldom leads them,” Venter said.
Learn more about this hearing and read written testimony from the witnesses on the House Energy and Commerce’s website. Venter and his colleagues’ published their recent breakthrough in Science Express.