U.S. Congress hears benefits of synthetic biology

WASHINGTON Thu May 27, 2010 3:52pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Synthetic biology can be used to make nonpolluting fuel, instant vaccines against new diseases and inexpensive medicines, but it will take time, collaboration and a nurturing regulatory environment, scientists said on Thursday.

The researchers, along with an ethicist and members of Congress, agreed the technology does not pose immediate environmental, security or ethical concerns but said everyone needs to keep an eye on developments.

Most of the hearing before the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee was spent outlining the potential of the technology.

The hearing was scheduled last week after a team at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced that they had used an artificially synthesized genome to bring back to life a bacterium that had its own genetic material scooped out.

"It is not life from scratch," Venter, who founded the institute, told the hearing, calling the work "a baby step" in the field of synthetic biology, with the eventual goal of building organisms directly to order from digital DNA.

As BP Plc battled an enormous oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, prompting questions about where to look for oil and what threats petroleum products pose to the environment, scientists held out the prospect of microbes that can synthesize clean fuel and gobble up pollutants.

"Our optimistic estimates are that it is going to be at least a decade before there are replacements for gasoline and diesel fuel," said Venter, whose privately held Synthetic Genomics Inc. has a contract with Exxon Mobil Corp to try to make algae that can produce biofuel.

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Jay Keasling of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and the University of California Berkeley Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center said his team's work had already been used as the foundation for two biofuel companies -- Emeryville-based Amyris Biotechnologies and South San Francisco-based LS9, the Renewable Petroleum Company.

Keasling said vaccine maker Sanofi Aventis has licensed technology to make engineered brewer's yeast that produces the anti-malarial drug artemisinin. He expects production to provide the drug at cost to the developing world within two years.

Venter said microbes engineered to make fuel from carbon dioxide could solve energy needs by pulling excess gases from the atmosphere that contribute to global warming.

The same technology could be used to design new vaccines in the computer, he added. But changes to human biology are far away. "It's a gargantuan leap from what we did to human," Venter said.

He defended moves to patent the technology. "This is clearly the first life form out of a computer and invented by humans," he said.

Some researchers have said they fear Venter or other groups could patent the process and lock them out.

Bioethicist Gregory Kaebnick of the nonpartisan Hastings Center said he saw no immediate ethical challenges.

"I believe concerns about the sacredness of life are not undercut by the science," Kaebnick told the hearing. "We are just talking about microbes at this point."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, agreed and said there were no special worries about biological attacks using the technology, noting that it took Venter's team years to make their organism.

"We also must keep in mind that nature itself is already an expert at creating microbes that can cause great harm to humans," Fauci said. "Do not overregulate something that needs care, integrity and responsibility," he urged the committee.

(Editing by Julie Steenhuysen and Xavier Briand)

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