The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

A debate over risks of synthetic biology

Over two days of hearings, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues didn’t just read its draft recommendations on federal oversight of synthetic biology and then explain the reasoning behind them. Its members raised major issues and debated several of them.

Unlike the Commission’s previous two hearings in Washington and Philadelphia, the two days in Atlanta included much interaction among panel members as well as receiving public comments.

On Wednesday, the big question was whether the Commission’s report adequately reflected the future risks of synthetic biology, an issue that received widespread attention after the J. Craig Venter Institute’s announcement on May 20 that it had inserted a synthetic genome into a separate living organism.

“My question for the commission is this: Have we done justice to our intrinsic worries in our draft?’’ said Dr. John Arras, the Porterfield Professor of Biomedical Ethics and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia.

Arras outlined two approaches for the Commission. One approach, he said, “is whether this field brings unique concerns that are so novel and serious that special restrictions are warranted at this time. I think we all agree that the answer to this question is no. One perfectly reasonable conclusion will be to focus on questions of risk and oversight and give intrinsic objections some mention but little more.’’

An alternative approach, he said, was that the Commission should give more attention to possible risks in the report. “We could move it from the margins of the report to its own place,’’ he said. “I say this as a philosopher not necessarily persuaded by the arguments but feel they deserve a more robust treatment than they have gotten here.’’

Dr. Amy Gutmann, the Commission Chair and President of the University of Pennsylvania, said that the threats posed by synthetic biology “were way into the future, and so our discussion turns out to be really theoretical, because we don’t have the ability to know the future direction of synthetic biology. That said, we have some discussion in the report, but we want to give as robust a discussion in this report as is suitable to the topic.’’

The Commission agreed to add more detail in the report about the risks possibly associated with synthetic biology. Its report is expected to be delivered to President Obama in about a month.

Dr. Amy Gutmann, Commission Chair

Dr. Amy Gutmann, Commission Chair

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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

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