WASHINGTON The not-quite-emerged field of synthetic biology -- artificial life -- will need coordinated supervision from the federal government, advisers to President Barack Obama said on Thursday.
They said the White House should oversee what all federal agencies are doing to regulate, fund or encourage synthetic biology and recommended that all scientists in the field get ethics education.
"We chose a middle course to maximize public benefits while also safeguarding against risks," Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania and chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, said in a statement.
In May, genome pioneer Craig Venter made a stir when he announced a major step in his quest to build a microbe from scratch.
A team at his Maryland-based J. Craig Venter Institute used an artificially synthesized genome to bring to life a bacterium that had its own genetic material scooped out.
While it was not quite synthetic life, it was enough to worry some environmentalists, who also criticized the commission's report on Thursday.
"We are disappointed that 'business as usual' has won out over precaution in the commission's report," said Eric Hoffman, biotechnology policy campaigner for Friends of the Earth. "Self-regulation equates to no regulation."
The commission, made up of 13 experts, said the field was not yet widely open. Only a few labs are capable of doing the work needed to synthesize life and there is time to get an oversight structure into place, they said.
"Synthetic biology offers opportunities to apply biological and engineering principles to benefit humankind in unprecedented ways," they added in a statement on their website at www.bioethics.org.
"Clean energy sources, customized vaccines and targeted medicines, environmental cleansers, and hardy crops are some of the potential applications of this burgeoning field of science."
(Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Xavier Briand)