Coalition Calls for Increased Oversight of Synthetic Biology

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Advocacy groups say current regulation of synthetic biology offers inadequate public protection.

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Synthetic biology research poses serious risks to the environment and to developing economies, according to a recent report issued by a coalition led by environmental watchdog Friends of the Earth (FOE). The coalition, comprising a diverse assortment of environmental, religious, labor, and human rights groups, called for a moratorium on the release or commercial use of synthetic biology products until appropriate regulatory oversight can be implemented.

According to FOE, the coalition’s report is largely intended as a counterpoint to a 2010 report issued by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. In that 2010 report, the Commission concluded that no new regulations were needed at present, but that lawmakers and scientists should work together to monitor the field and should foster dialogue with the public. The FOE report, in contrast, rejects the position that existing EPA regulations provide adequate safeguards against environmental risks, such as the potential for a synthetic organism to overwhelm a natural ecosystem.

In addition, the possibility that the products of synthetic biology might undercut farmers or lead to massive demand for plant-rich land in the Global South is a significant concern raised by FOE in its report. FOE calls for regulatory intervention to prevent such results, wherease the Commission report recommended instead the creation of voluntary guidelines for manufacturers.

Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field which uses an array of techniques to redesign parts of existing organisms or even create new ones. Whether the field in its current state actually encompasses new technology requiring fresh regulation is controversial. Industry organizations and the European Academies Science Advisory Council have concluded that synthetic biology is an extension of recombinant DNA technologies that have been safely used for decades, and that existing regulations offer sufficient oversight until the field advances further. In contrast, the FOE report treats synthetic biology as “new and extreme genetic engineering” with “undeveloped” governance mechanisms.

The FOE report and the Commission report appear to be motivated by competing principles. The FOE report draws heavily on the “precautionary principle,” which asserts that even an uncertain potential to do harm is sufficient cause for governmental oversight of new technologies. The Commission report refers to other principles, including “public beneficence” and “intellectual freedom,” which together suggest that the possibility that a new, potentially benefiical technology could also cause harm does not justify impediments to its development.

When asked for comment, Commission spokesperson Hillary Viers reiterated in an email the importance of maintaining a dialogue with stakeholders: “It is very important that views are heard from a range of people who are working on or who are interested in synthetic biology, like Friends of the Earth.  Indeed, the Commission welcomed FOE’s participation throughout the Commission’s deliberation on synthetic biology.”