May 27, 2010 / 12:26 AM / 8 years ago

(Q+A)-Genome pioneer Venter to testify on synthetic biology

WASHINGTON, May 27 (Reuters) - Experts in synthetic biology, including genome pioneer Craig Venter, will testify to Congress on Thursday about the latest developments in the field.

The most immediate issue will be Venter’s latest scientific announcement — that his J. Craig Venter Institute has taken a major step toward creating synthetic life. [ID:nN26575059]

Here are some questions and answers about the issue:

WHY HOLD A HEARING?

The House Energy and Commerce Committee helps oversee some of the legislation regulating research like that of the Venter Institute, which hopes some day to use its synthetic biology to design a useful organism on a computer and then engineer it from pure chemicals.

But there are ethical and environmental questions. President Barack Obama has asked the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to study the potential medical, environmental and security benefits or risks of the technology.

Environmental groups have asked Congress and federal agencies to ensure close regulation so that an engineered organism cannot escape into the environment and cause unforeseeable damage.

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman also wishes to highlight some of the other ongoing research in the area.

CAN THIS STUFF BE DANGEROUS?

Venter does not believe so. The researchers have disabled their newly made bacteria so they cannot survive outside the laboratory. They have also shown how fragile they can be — a single, one-letter mistake in the genetic code held up the team’s work for months until researchers discovered it and found it could keep the organism from coming to life and replicating.

    Environmentalists and others point to frequent lab mistakes — researchers working with AIDS, Marburg and other fatal viruses have been accidentally poked with needles and infected despite elaborate security measures. There is some evidence that flu viruses have also escaped from laboratories to infect people.

    There is also the potential to use this knowledge to bioengineer weapons.

    WHAT IS THE POTENTIAL?

    Algae that can pump out fuel, bacteria that could make short work of an oil spill or clean up a nuclear waste dump, or an influenza vaccine that could be designed in a few hours on a computer. That compares with the weeks it took to design the vaccine against the pandemic of H1N1 swine flu.

    Synthetic biologist Dr. Jay Keasling of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California Berkeley, will testify about using such methods to produce artemisinin. This product of the sweet wormwood plant is the source of the best current drug to treat malaria. Using plants to make medicines is unpredictable and uncertain but synthesizing less toxic and more effective versions of their active compounds would be appealing.

    “Synthetic biology holds promise for a wide range of applications for health, energy and the environment,” the energy committee’s briefing document reads.

    “Other possible applications include biological sensors to detect infections, fine tuning existing drugs, and techniques to improve tissue reconstruction.”

    WHEN WILL WE SEE RESULTS?

    Most of this work is still at the most basic stages. Venter has a $600 million joint venture with Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N) to try to develop biofuel from algae, but no one right now is making any money on the technology. Direct results are likely years away. (Editing by Peter Cooney)

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