February 23, 2024

US “artificial life” report to take middle ground

Preview of recommendations

Amy GutmannThe Presidential Commission for the Study
of Bioethical Issues will soon finish a report on “synthetic life” commissioned
by President Obama earlier this year. The report was prompted by scientific
entrepreneur Craig J. Venter’s announcement that his team had created an
artificial genome. The commission was asked to study the ethical and safety
aspects of this development. The report is due on December 15.

The chair, Amy Gutmann, president of the
University of Pennsylvania, gave The Scientist a preview of the

On oversight:

“We’re recommending a
middle ground between what you might call the proactive view ‘let science rip’
and the very cautious view, which says don’t let science move forward until you
have mitigated all the risks. We think that prudent vigilance is the
Aristotelian mean between those two extremes and it requires ongoing risk
analysis, rather than stop science until you know all the potential risks in
the future.”

On synthetic biology hype
and hysteria:

“We’re recommending that
an independent organization do for synthetic biology and biotechnology what
factcheck.org does for politics, which is to a fact check, be an online
resource for the public and journalists that you can check the veracity of
certain claims or criticisms of new discoveries. So you might imagine a new
online site called biofactcheck.org.”

On safeguards:

“We’re likely to
recommend that new organisms when they’re created should be marked or branded
in some manner to be able to monitor development in synthetic biology. And
there are many possible ways of doing this. We were given examples of suicide
genes or other types of self-destruction triggers that can be engineered into
organisms in order to place a limit on their lifespan.”

On do-it-yourselfers:

“The ‘do-it-yourselfers’
are individuals who work not in institutional settings. Do-it-yourself biology
is an important and exciting part of this field and it showcases how science
can engage people across our society who don’t have university or industrial
affiliations. At the same time, the global expansion of do-it-yourself bio
raises some concerns about safety and security.”

The Scientist, Nov 19


Michael Cook
artificial life
synthetic life