The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) recognizes the scientific significance of the newly released report by the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), describing the laboratory’s construction of a synthetic genome that, when introduced into a pre-existing microbial cell, was successfully propagated. It is the largest synthetic molecule of its kind constructed thus far, and a noteworthy achievement in genomics research. It is the latest success in ongoing JCVI research with species of Mycoplasma bacteria, toward the ultimate goal of constructing microorganisms with specific capabilities aimed at more efficient manufacturing of biofuels or pharmaceuticals. Although this research is a milestone technical advance in synthetic biology, the ASM believes that the laboratory designed genome does not warrant any new concerns by policymakers or the general public.
Construction of novel genomes inevitably prompts debate over ethical, biosecurity, or biosafety concerns associated with such scientific advances. This report describes results that are an expected extension of previously published JCVI research. In recent years, research at JCVI and by other groups in the United States and elsewhere have catalyzed public reviews of potential scientific and societal impacts of synthetic biology. There have been and continue to be extensive discussions about these issues, including those convened by the National Academies (NAS), the NIH Recombinant Advisory Committee, the NIH National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, and other science policy groups. Both scientists and policymakers recognize the great promise of synthetic genomics as well as the potential for deliberate or accidental misuse of new technology. The United States should continue to be at the forefront of new scientific advances as well as being mindful and leading important public dialogue on scientific and societal implications of new technologies.
As the oldest and largest single life science membership organization in the world, ASM has more than 40,000 members from 26 disciplines of microbiological specialization, some of which represent a wide range of genetic research. ASM therefore has participated in numerous discussions surrounding synthetic biology, often contributing expert testimony on specific aspects of research or regulation. The Society encourages discussion that will lead to understanding among scientists, policy groups, and the public about the societal implications of genomics research.