By Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) and Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.)
One year ago, American scientists passed a new milestone in genetic engineering history. On May 20, 2010, Craig Venter and his colleagues constructed the first fully self-replicating living cell controlled by synthetic DNA.
No, they didn't "create life" -- they used an existing living organism. But this breakthrough does hold the promise of helping us address many of this century's greatest challenges in healthcare, energy, agriculture and the environment. It also raises new questions about ethics and safety.
Soon after the scientific breakthrough, President Obama established a Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to review the emerging science of synthetic biology in order to maximize its benefits and minimize its risks and analyze its ethical dimensions. Meanwhile, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Select Committee on Global Warming each conducted hearings on the issues raised by this cutting-edge technology.
In a six-month review released in December, the Presidential Commission declared, "We are ahead of the emerging science, and this unique opportunity underscores the need for the government to act now to ensure a regular, ongoing process of review as the science develops."
The science of synthetic biology continues to move forward. Companies and universities researching and developing synthetic biology are helping to boost the economy by creating high-tech jobs and keeping the U.S. in the frontlines of this fast-growing industry.
This industry has the potential to develop new vaccines that can respond to outbreaks of epidemics, engineer pharmaceuticals that target cancer tumors without hurting healthy tissues, produce renewable fuels on a commercial scale to reduce the nation's reliance on imported oil and create new crops to feed the world's growing population. Some synthetically engineered microorganisms are already being designed to render toxic wastes harmless, while other research could yield oil-eating microbes -- an application that would have been helpful after the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Synthetic biology, however, is not without risks. We must guarantee that these technologies do not end up in the wrong hands and lead to disastrous consequences. We must also see to it that the companies that commercialize synthetic biology take precautions to protect their employees, their community, the public and the natural environment.
These concerns explain why, as with other technological advances, synthetic biology should be accompanied by greater public understanding, effective public policies, and appropriate ethical guidelines. Congress has a critical role to play in crafting public policy, but the concerns surrounding this science cut across several congressional committees.
That is why we have established the Congressional Caucus on Synthetic Biology. This caucus will serve as an information clearinghouse and educational forum for discussions among public officials, academics, ethicists, research scientists and corporate leaders. We welcome all opinions.
As synthetic biology continues to advance, the industry will continue to grow and generate jobs, here in the United States and in other advanced economies. By informing ourselves and our constituents and crafting responsible public policies, Congress can help to make sure that the U.S. synthetic biology industry protects Americans' safety, reflects Americans' values, and improves Americans' lives and livelihoods. With this great advancement in science, comes even greater responsibility to harness the potential for the betterment of our global community.