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Bioethical Marching Orders

President Obama wasted no time sending a letter to Amy Gutmann, chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, requesting a report on how the administration can support the growth and appropriate governance of synthetic biology. The dispatch arrived just hours after the J. Craig Venter Institute announced yesterday that scientists at the research organization had created the first bacteria with a synthetic genome.

The president instructed Gutmann that the report should consider the “potential medical, environmental, security, and other benefits of this field of research, as well as any potential health, security or other risks.” He also asked that “the Commission should develop recommendations about any actions the Federal government should take to ensure that America reaps the benefits of this developing field of science while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries and minimizing identified risks.” Finally, he directed the Commission to “consult with a range of constituencies, including scientific and medical communities, faith communities, and business and nonprofit organizations.” The Commission will have six months to deliver its recommendations.

The inquiry should open an inclusive dialogue on the material and ethical implications of the research while emphasizing pragmatic action for the government to take. Eric Meslin, former director of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission under President Clinton, wrote in a recent article for Science Progress that “deliberations must not only be rigorously supported by good science and good ethics, but must also include strategies to translate its recommendations into implementation.” Citing his experience with NBAC in the mid-1990s, he presciently warned that “even when you plan to take a slow and steady approach to developing the commission’s working style, along comes a cloned sheep from Scotland or the unexpected announcement of the isolation and culture of human embryonic stem cells to throw a wrench into existing priorities. The PCSBI should expect the unexpected.”

The announcement of the first organism “booted up” from a synthetic genome is a similarly monumental breakthrough, and an unexpected but welcome opportunity.

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