Policymakers Face Challenges With Emerging Synthetic Biology Field

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Laurie Garrett, a journalist and senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in a feature essay about the emerging field of synthetic biology, in which scientists can use genetic information to create new organic life forms, and the policy implications. “Governance, in short, is focused on the old world of biology, in which scientists observed life from the outside, puzzling over its details and behavior by tinkering with its environment and then watching what happened. But in the new biology world, scientists can now create life themselves and learn about it from the inside,” she states. Garrett writes about the controversy surrounding “‘dual-use research of concern’ (DURC) — work that could have both beneficial and dangerous consequences” — particularly as it pertains to H5N1 avian influenza virus research and the response from the WHO, the U.S. and other countries.

“Scientists and security experts will never come to a consensus about the risks of dual-use research in synthetic biology,” she writes, adding, “What this means is that political leaders should not wait for clarity and perfect information, nor rush to develop restrictive controls, nor rely on scientific self-regulation. Instead, they should accept that the synthetic biology revolution is here to stay, monitor it closely, and try to take appropriate actions to contain some of its most obvious risks, such as the accidental leaking or deliberate release of dangerous organisms.” She discusses several recommendations for action, concluding, “Now that synthetic biology is here to stay, the challenge is how to ensure that future generations see its emergence as more boon than bane” (November/December 2013).