Congress explicitly took up the subject of synthetic biology for the first time Thursday during a hastily convened hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The Wired crowd has been talking about how to engineer biological machines for years, but Craig Venter’s announcement last week that he’s created a synthetic cell has drawn the attention of the very highest levels of government.
The hearing came shortly after President Barack Obama ordered a six-month review of synthetic biology by a panel of scientific stars.
The House committee members seemed primarily interested in the potential of synthetic biology to create micro-organisms that could effectively produce hydrocarbons that could be used to power the nation’s transportation system.
“Synthetic biology also has the potential to reduce our dependence on oil and to address
climate change,” said Henry Waxman, D-California, the chair of the committee. “Research is underway to develop microbes that would produce oil, giving us a renewable fuel that could be used interchangeably with gasoline without creating more global warming pollution. Research could also lead to oil-eating microbes, an application that, as the Gulf spill unfortunately demonstrates, would be extremely useful.”
The committee heard testimony from an excellent panel of scientists composed of Venter himself, Berkeley’s Jay Keasling, Stanford’s Drew Endy, and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci.
Committee members did not seem overwhelmingly familiar with the state of the science, generally reading clunkily from prepared statements. The event did not have any of the sharp give-and-takes between representatives and panelists that they sometimes do.
In fact, the hearing was technically an oversight task, but it played out closer to a gee-whiz commercial for the new firms that are trying to commercialize the technology. Venter, Keasling and Endy all have ties to companies trying to make money from synthetic biological techniques.
Keasling made the smoothest transition from his scientific work, coming up with a way to produce the anti-malarial drug artemisinin in yeast, which could substantially reduce the cost of its distribution, to his sales pitch.
“Fortuitously, artemisinin is a hydrocarbon, a fundamental building block for fuel. We are
now re-engineering the artemisinin-producing microbes to produce drop-in biofuels,” he said. “That is, through advances in synthetic biology, we can engineer these same safe, reliable, industrial microorganisms to produce biofuels that will work within our existing transportation infrastructure.”
Only one witness, Gregory Kaebnick, a bioethicist at the Hastings Center, a nonprofit that studies the ethics of biotechnology, could be said to be an outside observer of the synthetic biology industry.
“I was the only one on the panel who didn’t have a vested stake in it one way or the other. I think that’s probably a mistake,” Kaebnick told Wired.com. “The president’s panel will take it up, and they’ll probably bring in more perspectives.”
Image: Venter’s blue synthetic cells