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Panel Urges Regulatory Hands-Off Approach With Emerging Biology Field

A presidential commission has concluded there is no need to impose new regulations or to create new regulatory agencies for the controversial new field known as synthetic biology, The New York Times reports.

The panel on Tuesday released released its first report on synthetic biology, the field of creating new organisms through the synthesis and manipulation of DNA.

The commission said that the technology poses few risks because it is still in the early stages of development. It recommended that the field be self-regulated by synthetic biologists.

At the same time, the Wall Street Journal notes,  it urged the White House to keep tabs on all government research and risk assessments, and that it keep an eye on amateur do-it-yourself bio-hackers who are among those pioneering the field of artificial life.

Synthetic biology uses genetic engineering and other techniques to create new organisms designed for specific tasks. The technology is already being used to engineer microorganisms to manufacture a malaria drug and to produce biofuels, and it is hoped that the industry could form a huge new bio-economy that could partly supplant petroleum-based industry.

However, there are still concerns about the risks of “bio-terror” and “bio-error” in which the same techniques, either nefariously or inadvertently, could be used to create organisms that would harm public health or the environment.

President Obama created the commission about a year ago, following the announcement by scientist J. Craig Venter that he and his colleagues had created an organism not found in nature — what might be called the first “synthetic organism.” The team produced the complete genome of a bacterium from chemicals and transplanted it into another closely related type of bacterium, where it took over control of the organism.

Dr. Amy Gutmann, the commission chair and president of the University of Pennsylvania, told the Times that the 13 scientists, ethicists and public policy experts who make up the commission had unanimously endorsed the report’s 18 recommendations, including one that training in ethics be required for researchers in the field.

More than 50 environmental groups from around the world signed an open letter to federal officials calling for a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms until the risks are understood and regulations developed.

“The commission’s lack of attention to the ecological harms posed by synthetic biology is irresponsible and dangerous,” the letter said, adding that “self- regulation amounts to no regulation.”