A few weeks ago, I
discussed my service
on the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethics Issues (the Bioethics Commission). Today, I want tell you about one topic we examined that was perhaps my favorite - synthetic biology.
It was the first issue President Barack Obama assigned to the Commission. I found it interesting because it was a new issue and involved cutting-edge science, which I find very exciting.
Synthetic biology is an emerging field that combines biology, engineering, genetics, chemistry, and computer science. It refers to the building of cellular DNA from chemicals based on a computer template, and then placing the newly developed DNA back into a cell to cause the cell to make new products or change its character. Fragments of new DNA can be used to direct a cell to replicate faster than other cells or to produce new products.
Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced in May 2010 they had produced "new life" using this technique. President Obama asked us to explore the ethical issues surrounding this research and to recommend appropriate ethical boundaries for the science.
The Commission found the scientists actually did not create "new life." Instead we found that the scientists used a synthetic DNA construction of an already occurring bacterial genome. The manufactured genome, when placed into the cell of a different bacteria, took over all the cellular processes and started to replicate a new bacteria in the cellular material of a different species. You can read more
This was an exciting and major step forward in a field that holds great promise for making new products by putting particular genes into bacteria and using them to quickly produce greater quantities of vaccines, medicines, and clean energy sources. For instance, algae with particular genes inserted into them can produce biofuels that have potential to one day replace fossil fuels.
While there is great long-term potential, there also are risks. Some environmentalists worry about the potential of new organisms being released into the environment and causing damage.
I look forward to developing a cutting-edge research center at UNLV School of Medicine where some day our faculty, residents, and medical students will find new ways to prevent and cure diseases.