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Biological Chemistry

Synthetic Biology Risk Assessment Sought

by Britt E. Erickson
November 24, 2008 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 86, ISSUE 47

The potential risks and broad societal concerns of the emerging field of synthetic biology have not been sufficiently addressed, concludes a new report by Denise Caruso, executive director and cofounder of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Hybrid Vigor Institute, a think tank dedicated to interdisciplinary and collaborative problem solving. Caruso describes synthetic biology as the ability to create new artificial life-forms from everyday chemicals or the ability to manipulate genetic material to make living organisms operate more efficiently. In the report she predicts that commercial applications of synthetic biology are right around the corner, particularly in medicine, energy, and environmental remediation. She highlights the potential benefits of synthetic organisms but raises concerns about the potential for bioterrorism or the accidental release of such organisms into the environment. "Synthetic biology poses what may be the most profound challenge to government oversight of technology in human history," she writes. To that end, she provides recommendations for improved governance of the technology, including the need for a comprehensive risk assessment, emphasizing that synthetic biology should not be treated as if it were the same technology as genetic engineering.

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