The excitement over synthetic biology resurfaced on reports in May 2010 of the development of a “synthetic cell,” although only the genome was synthetic. Dr. Venter and his team reported that they had assembled a 1.08 mega base pair Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 genome using digitized genome sequence information. The scientists transplanted the genome into a M. capricolum recipient cell to create new M. mycoides cells controlled only by the synthetic chromosome.
Reactions to the artificial cell, named “Synthia” by its developers, were exemplified by newspaper headlines like “Scientist Craig Venter creates life for first time in laboratory sparking debate about ‘playing god’” and “Artificial life has been created in a laboratory for the first time by a maverick scientist”.
Dr. Venter pointed out that he requested a bioethical review of the field in the late 1990s and has participated in various discussions on the topic. “I think this is the first incidence in science where the extensive bioethical review took place before the experiments were done. It’s part of an ongoing process that we’ve been driving, trying to make sure that the science proceeds in an ethical fashion,” he said.
Under NIH’s “Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant DNA,” recombinant research involves molecules that are constructed outside living cells by joining natural or synthetic molecules to DNA molecules that can replicate in a cell. The institute has assessed the guidelines with respect to synthetic biology, in particular de novo synthesis of nucleic acids.
This assessment—informed by ample scientific and public input in writing and at public meetings—concluded that the synthesis of nucleic acids raised the same biosafety considerations as more conventional recombinant techniques and thus should be subject to the same biosafety oversight, RAC said to GEN through NIH.
In the March 1 issue of Nature, Genya V. Dana and colleagues at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Ohio State University re-emphasized the need to proactively address environmental risks so that the benefits of synthetic biology can be realized. At least $20 to $30 million in government research will be needed over the next decade, they said, to adequately identify and address the possible ecological risks of synthetic biology.
The authors noted that “no one yet understands the risks that synthetic organisms pose to the environment, what kinds of information are needed to support rigorous assessments, or who should collect such data.” In contrast to genetically modified crops, they said, synthetic biology products “will be altered in more sophisticated and fundamental ways such as elimination of metabolic pathways, making them potentially more difficult to regulate, manage, and monitor.”
The authors further stressed the importance of starting this evaluation of syn bio as the field is advancing. “Synthetic biology has already moved out of the lab, propelled by significant public and private investments in organisms modified to produce chemicals, medicines, and biofuels,” they wrote.