Synthetic Biology – The blog of the 2009 - 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues Mon, 09 Jan 2017 23:23:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Looking Back at the Bioethics Commission’s Blog Mon, 05 Dec 2016 16:00:04 +0000 Throughout its tenure, the Bioethics Commission has maintained an active digital presence to connect with a global audience. A major component of this has been through its blog. This final blog post reflects on the role the blog has played in disseminating the Bioethics Commission’s work.first-blog

Former Bioethics Commission Executive Director Valerie Bonham launched the commission’s blog on November 15, 2010, announcing that the staff would be liveblogging during Meeting Three in Atlanta. From that meeting onward, Bioethics Commission staff continued to blog live from the Bioethics Commission’s meetings, held throughout the country in cities including Washington DC, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston. Meeting posts highlighted salient points of discussion as they occurred during the public meetings. For example, during Meeting Three, a blog post outlined the members’ deliberations regarding the risks and benefits of synthetic biology. During Meeting Eighteen, which focused on ethical issues in neuroscience, a blog post highlighted some of the discussion about the ethical challenges in neuroscience research. The Bioethics Commission also used blog posts to distill complex topics that arose during meetings. During Meeting Twelve, which focused on pediatric medical countermeasure research, a blog post presented a simplified structure of some of the federal regulations concerning pediatric research.

The commission’s blog also highlighted and explained the impact of the commission’s work. For example, during the commission’s tenure, a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to revise the Common Rule—the regulations that govern the ethical conduct of federally supported human subjects research—was published in the Federal Register on September 8, 2015. Elements of the commission’s work were included in this notice. In September and October 2015, the Bioethics Commission released a series of blog posts that described some of the relevant inclusions in the NPRM, and explained their significance.

The Bioethics Commission also used the blog to share its outreach activities and initiatives with a broad readership. For example, when Bioethics Commission staff attended the annual meeting of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities in October 2015, a blog post highlighted the commission’s outreach efforts, and included answers to frequently asked questions that staff members fielded while at the conference. When the Bioethics Commission presented at the White House BRAIN conference, a blog post shared Executive Director Lisa M. Lee’s remarks. On June 8, 2016, Col. Nelson Michael gave an interview with the bioethics news site BioEdge, and the Bioethics Commission staff wrote a two-part blog post on some of the issues Col. Michael raised regarding democratic deliberation and ethics education. Blog posts were also written to describe publications in academic journals by Commission members and staff. A blog post shared a commentary written by Bioethics Commission Vice Ch
air Dr. James Wagner, who wrote about the importance of early ethics education.

During its tenure, the Bioethics Commission produced over 65 educational materials, and used the blog to picture1announce the availability of new educational materials, including user guides, primers, classroom discussion guides, and deliberative scenarios. Blog posts also helped outline how to use the educational materials. Blog posts also highlighted topics including innovations in ethics education, and the importance of civic engagement. The Bioethics Commission also used the blog to announce and promote its podcast series Ethically Sound, a 10-episode series that focuses on some of the ethical issues raised in the commission’s reports.
Readers can access previous blog posts, educational materials, the podcast series Ethically Sound, along with all of the Bioethics Commission’s reports and related materials at On behalf of the Bioethics Commission, we thank our readers for their continued interest in the work of the commission.

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Ethically Sound Episode 10: Charting a Path Forward Mon, 21 Nov 2016 16:00:01 +0000 The tenth and final episode of the Bioethics Commission’s podcast series, Ethically Sound, is now available. Today’s episode, “Charting a Path previewscreensnapz001Forward,” focuses on the Bioethics Commission’s two most recent public meetings, during which the Bioethics Commission reflected on the impact of past, present, and future of national bioethics advisory bodies.

Since the 1970s, the U.S. has had a succession of national advisory bodies to provide Congress or the President with expert advice on topics related to bioethics. Other countries also benefit from advisory bodies that provide advice about bioethi
cal issues. During its twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth public meetings, the Bioethics Commission heard
from members of past bioethics advisory bodies, representatives of international bioethics bodies, as well as officials who have been advised by such bodies.

The podcast opens with a narrative from Alex Capron, Professor of Law and Medicine at the University of Southern California. Mr. Capron chaired the Biomedical Ethics Advisory Committee from 1987 to 1990, and served on President William J. Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Body from 1996 to 2001. Mr. Capron presented before the commission during Meeting 26, and reflected on his experiences with both of these advisory bodies. In the podcast, Mr. Capron recounts a challenging experience he faced while describing the disciplinary backgrounds of bioethics advisory body staff to policymakers unfamiliar with the interdisciplinary nature of bioethics.

The podcast also includes an interview with Bioethics Commission member Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, Kilbride-Clinton Chair in Medicine and Ethics at the University of Chicago. The interview was conducted by Hillary Wicai Viers, a former Communications Director with the Bioethics Commission staff. Dr. Sulmasy discussed the importance of looking to past commissions, the legacy of the current Bioethics Commission, and the pressing ethical issues that we could face in the future. Regarding the importance of looking to past bioethics commissions, Dr. Sulmasy said “The past is applicable because many of the most basic ethical questions are perennial. We may encounter new problems, but the most fundamental questions about human finitude, the meaning of human progress, the role of balancing relief of suffering versus other ethical principles, questions of cost, and justice are always with us.”

Episode 10, and all of the other Ethically Sound episodes, is now available on our website, as well as on our SoundCloud, YouTube and iTunes pages. Listeners can follow the podcast using #EthicallySound or by following us on Twitter @bioethicsgov. Stay tuned for our upcoming educational resource, a set of discussion questions to accompany the Ethically Sound series that can be used in a classroom or seminar setting. We welcome comments and feedback at

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Ethically Sound Episode 6: New Directions Mon, 17 Oct 2016 15:00:43 +0000 The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues bioethics_twitter-v3-08(Bioethics Commission) has
released the sixth episode, “New Directions“, in its new
podcast series Ethically Sound.  This podcast series is dedicated to bringing the Bioethics Commission’s body of work to a broad audience. The Bioethics Commission, established in 2009 by President Bara
ck Obama, has produced 10 reports, each of which focuses on key ethical considerations surrounding a particular topic. Today’s episode is based on the Bioethics Commission’s first report, New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies.

New Directions was written in response to a charge from President Obama, after the announcement that researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute had created the world’s first self-replicating synthetic genome in a bacterial cell. This news resulted in intense media coverage and hyped claims about the implications of this research. President Obama asked the Bioethics Commission to review the developing field of synthetic biology and to identify appropriate ethical boundaries that would both maximize public benefits and minimize risks. The Bioethics Commission considered a diverse range of perspectives on the direction and implications of synthetic biology throughout its public deliberations. Taking into consideration both the tremendous promise and the potential risks that could arise from developments in synthetic biology, the commission put forth 18 recommendations that outline important ethical considerations for synthetic biology. The recommendations include a call for increased federal oversight of research in synthetic biology, and a recommendation for incorporating ethics training for researchers in fields such as engineering and materials science, who might become involved in synthetic biology research.

The podcast opens with a narrative from Eleonore Pauwels, Senior Program Associate within the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Ms. Pauwels shared her reaction to the announcement from the Venter Institute, and her perspective on how ethical issues would need to be addressed in this emerging technology. She said, “Today we still face an unresolved question: How do we develop a culture of inclusive public deliberation and decision-making that could guide integration of synthetic biology and all new technologies into society?”

The podcast also includes an interview with the Vice Chair of the Bioethics Commission and former President of Emory University, Dr. James Wagner. Hillary Wicai Viers, former Communications Director with the Bioethics Commission staff, conducted the interview. Dr. Wagner discussed the relevance of the commission’s report for current and future developments in synthetic biology, and how this first report set the tone for the rest of the commission’s body of work. Dr. Wagner noted that the ethical principles established in this report were foundational to subsequent projects, as well. He said, “We found ourselves in subsequent reports also recommending that there needs to be greater education in the area of bioethics, and education of our public to understand the current state of the art. We found ourselves coming back to those [ethical principles] over and over again in subsequent works that we did, whether it was work in neuroscience or work in genome sequencing.”

Episode 6 is now available on our website, as well as on our SoundCloud, YouTube and iTunes pages. In addition to this episode, listeners can access the first five episodes of Ethically Sound. Listeners can follow the podcast using the hashtag #EthicallySound or by following us on Twitter @bioethicsgov. Stay tuned for the seventh episode in our series, “Moral Science,” which will be available on October 24, 2016. We welcome comments and feedback at

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Bioethics Deliberation and Education in New Directions Thu, 23 Jul 2015 15:42:59 +0000 Two weeks ago, in the blog post “A Background on Deliberation and Education in Bioethics,” we discussed the role of deliberation and education in the recommendations issued by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission). These principles remain a common thread throughout the Bioethics Commission’s work. This second post of the new “Deliberation and Education” series will examine the role that these two principles played in the Commission’s first report: New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies.

Released in December 2010, New Directions was undertaken at the request of President Barack Obama, who asked the Bioethics Commission to review the developing field of synthetic biology and identify appropriate ethical boundaries to maximize public benefits and minimize risks. The Commission made 18 recommendations in the report, centering around five ethical principles: public beneficence; responsible stewardship; intellectual freedom and responsibility; democratic deliberation; and justice and fairness.

In order to promote responsible stewardship, the Bioethics Commission made a recommendation (#9) that included ethics education:

Ethics education similar or superior to the training required today in the medical and clinical research communities should be developed and required for all researchers and student-investigators outside the medical setting, including in engineering and materials science.

The Bioethics Commission recognized that integrating ethics education into the curriculum was necessary in order to cultivate responsible research practices. In addition, democratic deliberation appeared as its own principle with three corresponding recommendations (# 14-16):

Stakeholders are encouraged to maintain an ongoing exchange regarding their views on synthetic biology and related emerging technologies, sharing their perspectives with the public and with policy makers.

When discussing synthetic biology, individuals and deliberative forums should strive to employ clear and accurate language.

Educational activities related to synthetic biology should be expanded and directed to diverse populations of students at all levels, civil society organizations, communities, and other groups.

The three recommendations, which also include education, serve to guide democratic deliberation, a process the Bioethics Commission uses in its own decision-making.

Bioethics education and deliberation have served as a foundation for the Bioethics Commission since its very first report. These concepts appear throughout the Commission’s work, demonstrating their applicability across the biomedical, research, and clinical spheres.

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New Educational Module from the Bioethics Commission on Community Engagement in Synthetic Biology Fri, 13 Feb 2015 17:41:12 +0000 The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) has posted to a new educational module on community engagement in the context of synthetic biology. The module integrates material from the Bioethics Commission’s report New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies (New Directions).

The aim of this module is to help instructors understand how community engagement can impact technological development and application of synthetic biology and other emerging technologies, as well as the importance of democratic deliberation for addressing the use of such technologies. The module identifies guiding ethical principles and describes how they promote engagement with the public and with affected communities.

Through discussion questions, scenarios, and exercises, the module guides instructors to help students consider the differences between public engagement, community engagement, and community-engaged research, and offers a timely example of the engagement process in synthetic biology. Illustrative examples that highlight potential benefits and challenges of community engagement include the production of algal biofuels, use of synthetic chemicals in consumer products, and development of drugs using synthetic biology techniques.

This module is the latest addition to the Bioethics Commission’s series of modules on community engagement, which includes background material and modules discussing community engagement in the contexts of human subjects research protection and privacy in whole genome sequencing. This module is also the first that the Bioethics Commission has developed based on its report New Directions.

All of the Bioethics Commission’s educational modules are based on ethical questions addressed by the Commission and provide instructors with foundational information, ethical analysis, discussion questions, problem-based learning scenarios, exercises, and additional resources to support ethics education and the integration of bioethical analysis into coursework across disciplines.

All Bioethics Commission educational materials are free and available at The Bioethics Commission encourages feedback on its materials at

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Member Spotlight: Barbara Atkinson Thu, 15 Aug 2013 16:21:17 +0000 barbara-atkinson_portraitPresident Obama appointed Barbara Atkinson, M.D., to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission) in April 2010. Atkinson is Executive Vice Chancellor Emeritus at the University of Kansas Medical Center and Professor Emeritus of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. She was elected to membership in the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1997.

As a cytopathologist, a physician who studies diseases at the cellular level, Atkinson brings both medical and institutional perspectives to the issues before the Bioethics Commission. However, Atkinson did not always know she wanted to work in bioethics. She was first introduced to this emerging field when she began teaching general ethics to her medical students. In its infancy, bioethics was not formally taught in the classroom, but learned and picked up through practice, Atkinson said. It was through her experience in patient care and research that Atkinson became more and more interested in bioethics. Upon accepting the position Executive Vice Chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical Center, Atkinson became responsible for addressing many ethical issues arising from the research and clinical activities of the school. As her work progressed, Atkinson’s professional interests began to shift to bioethical issues such as health disparities and potential conflicts of interest, and later to end of life care and research issues related to the human genome.

Atkinson is also a proponent of mentorship in her field through programs like the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) for women. When Atkinson graduated from medical school, only 10% of medical students were women, and even fewer of them were leaders in academic medicine. “As I moved through my career, I made it a point to mentor other women,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson particularly values the opportunity to contribute to national discussions on new, significant issues like pediatric medical countermeasure research, implications of research on the human genome, and neuroscience. “The ethics piece is an integral piece of the whole discussion and to be able to have an impact on those studies is incredibly meaningful,” she said. The Bioethics Commission’s first report, New Directions in Synthetic Biology, remains Atkinson’s favorite report to date because she found the process of putting forth recommendations on cutting edge technology fascinating, and she appreciates that it was widely read by diverse audiences.

Like so many of her peers, Atkinson said that the best part of working with the Bioethics Commission is the company of fellow members and distinguished speakers who come to publicly present at Bioethics Commission meetings. “At meetings, each person is able to offer different perspectives and different views. To be a part of a discussion with them on those issues is what I really enjoy.”

When she is not deliberating challenging bioethical issues, Atkinson enjoys birding. She and her husband have identified 565 species in the United States and Canada.

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Member Spotlight: Anita L. Allen Fri, 05 Jul 2013 15:00:01 +0000 anita-allen_portrait

When Dr. Anita Allen moves in to her new office at the University of Pennsylvania, where she has recently been appointed Vice Provost for Faculty, she will bring her 1991 yearbook from Harvard Law School. Allen points out that the yearbook includes a portrait of her, then a visiting law professor, and also of then student leader and graduating law student, Barack Obama. Allen says that she never imagined that 20 years after those pictures were taken, Obama would be President and she would be a member of his Bioethics Commission, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

A graduate of Harvard Law, Allen has been a part of the University of Pennsylvania faculty since 1998. She is currently the Vice Provost for Faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy.

When Dr. Allen was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Michigan, she was recruited to be a teaching assistant for a medical humanities course as well as a contemporary moral problems course. The topics covered in the courses, including women’s reproductive health issues and the right to die, fascinated her. She credits these two courses in particular with inspiring her interest in bioethics.  Her doctoral dissertation research brought her into contact with the U.S. Supreme Court’s right to family and personal privacy cases. The issue of privacy became a gateway to her engagement with a host of topics in clinical medicine and health research.

As a member of the Bioethics Commission Allen has had the opportunity to engage in a number of new topics. For example, she says that the science the Bioethics Commission learned about in connection with New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies was intriguing and that the problems of justice raised by “Ethically Impossible” STD Research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948 were particularly gripping. In addition, Privacy and Progress in Whole Genome Sequencing was an exciting report for her to be involved with given her interest in privacy law.

Allen says that being a part of the Bioethics Commission has been a highlight of her professional life. She was extremely honored to have been selected to serve the nation in this way under President Obama. “We have taken on questions of incredible complexity and drawn on the resources of top scholars and affected persons to help us in our deliberations— the work has been deeply satisfying.”


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Synthetic Biology and Beyond: Commission’s Goal: keep the dialogue going Tue, 08 Feb 2011 19:14:14 +0000 Washington, D.C. – On December 16, 2010 the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released its report on Synthetic Biology, fulfilling its first charge from President Obama.

Prompted by the J. Craig Venter Institute’s announcement that it had created the first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell, President Obama tasked his Commission to review the developing field of synthetic biology. He asked the Commission to consider the emerging science’s potential benefits and risks and to identify appropriate ethical boundaries that would maximize benefit and minimize risk for the public.

The Commission embraced the challenging assignment and conducted three public meetings in Washington, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Subsequently, the Commission found that synbio is a field in its infancy and that major foreseeable risks are still far off.  Finally, it concluded that the Venter Institute’s work was not “the creation of life” as either a scientific or a moral matter.

In its Executive Summary of New Directions: the Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies, the Commission wrote:

“The scientific evidence before the Commission showed that the research relied on an existing natural host.  The technical feat of synthesizing a genome from its chemical parts so that it becomes self-replicating when inserted into a bacterial cell of another species, while a significant accomplishment, does not represent the creation of life from inorganic chemicals alone.”

After reaching its conclusions, the Commission recommended 18 action items that neither call for a moratorium on the emerging field nor encourage “letting science rip.” (You can read the recommendations here.)

After presenting its report in December to President Obama’s Science and Technology Advisor, Dr. John P. Holdren, the Commission is now engaged in discussing its findings and its recommendations with the public.

As part of that ongoing outreach, on February 4, Commission Chair, Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., delivered the keynote address at a Future Tense conference hosted by Google. Future Tense is a partnership of Arizona State University, the New America Foundation and Slate magazine. At the conference, speakers endeavored to answer, “How does a democratic society both nurture and regulate — and find the right balance between those two imperatives — fast-evolving technologies poised to radically alter life?”

“We as a society have a unique opportunity to get ahead of the science,” Gutmann said of synthetic biology during her February 4 presentation.  “And get ahead of it not by shutting it down, but get ahead of it by having oversight over what it’s capable of doing and giving it maximum freedom to do the good and putting in safeguards against the bad.”

“The Commission’s report was just the beginning of that process,” Commission Executive Director Valerie Bonham said. “What we need now is ongoing dialogue and sustained review of the field. And the Commissioners believe that continued public engagement and engagement by the federal government must happen on many levels.”

At the Center for American Progress on Thursday, February 3, Commission Member Nelson Michael, M.D., Ph.D., and Bonham also worked to engage the public.  In addition, Commission Vice Chair James W. Wagner, Ph.D., discussed the report with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in early January.

“It is very important that we continue to hear the views of a range of people who are working on or who are interested in synthetic biology,” Bonham said.   “I recently addressed a class at National Defense University on the topic.”

But ongoing public engagement is just half of the equation. The Commission also recommended that the government continually review the advances in synthetic biology as the science unfolds.

“We are eager to work with the Executive Office of the President to implement such a review process.  This type of ongoing risk assessment will provide ample warning if the brakes need to be applied on the science,” Bonham said.

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A debate over risks of synthetic biology Wed, 17 Nov 2010 17:54:46 +0000 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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