Monday, October 22, 2007

Synthetic Genomics

The popular view in the British press; Imagine if the engineers of 18th-century Britain could have foreseen the consequences of industrialisation. If they had been warned that it would bring untold wealth and comfort to millions, but would also disrupt human communities, lead to a terrible escalation of war and huge environmental degradation, how then would they have weighed the massive and momentous consequences? And how are we going to? In a couple of decades we could have a nature to organise entirely as we like - the scientist Freeman Dyson suggested black-leaved forests for more efficient use of sunlight in an article on synbio in a recent New York Review of Books. We could be busy creating our own biodiversity to replace the one we will have lost. We might have a "new, improved nature" which is more efficient in meeting our needs and ensuring the survival of future generations: is that a threat or a promise of salvation? And who are we going to trust to make that judgment call?

The governance blueprint at the JCVI; Synthetic genomics combines methods for the chemical synthesis of DNA with computational techniques to design it. These methods allow scientists and engineers to construct genetic material that would be impossible or impractical to produce using more conventional biotechnological approaches. For example, using synthetic genomics it is possible to design and assemble chromosomes, genes and gene pathways, and even whole genomes.

Scientists foresee many potential positive applications including new pharmaceuticals, biologically produced (“green”) fuels, and the possibility of rapidly generating vaccines against emerging microbial diseases. However, as with many technologies, there is the potential for misuse and accidents.

Designing ways to impede malicious uses of the technology while at the same time not impeding, or even promoting beneficial ones, poses a number of policy challenges for all who wish to use or benefit from synthetic genomics. The report presents governance options that attempt to reduce security- and safety risks without imposing undue burdens on researchers, industry, or government.