Feds Approve Controversial Biotechnology
The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, saying that synthetic biology researchers can self-regulate, has ignored civil society calls for a moratorium on synthetic biology until an appropriate regulatory framework is established.
Fifty-eight civil society organizations in 22 countries signed an open letter disapproving of the administration’s green-lighting of this controversial field: “The current state of “self-governance” permits students to create synthetic organisms on campuses;” the letter explained, “and stretches of synthetic DNA may be purchased online, allowing laypeople to create organisms in their garages where, with no oversight, life forms not previously found in nature, may be dumped down drains and flow, freely, into the environment.” These are disturbing scenarios, given that “biological containment of synthetic organisms – which reproduce quickly, escape confinement, and cannot be recalled – is impossible.” But incautious DNA-manipulating students and biohackers are not even the most troubling specter of the Commission’s irresponsible permissiveness. Craig Venter, whose synthetic creation triggered federal attention, has partnered with British Petroleum and with Exxon Mobil to develop synthetic biofuels. Given that these associations may lead to eventual release of synthetic organisms, the Commission’s unenforceable “guidelines” are particularly troubling, especially during a year marking the worst environmental disaster in US history. In the absence of effective whistle-blower protections for scientists, the oxymoronic notion of self-regulation will not translate into standards capable of protecting the environment or public health and safety.
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