Op-Eds


Safe and fruitful DNA innovation

By Stephen Maurer, the Wall Street Journal

Scott Gottlieb in his review of George Church and Ed Regis's "Regenesis" (Bookshelf, Oct. 12) is right to point out that scientific communities have exercised significant self-governance in the past, sometimes adopting strong measures ahead of the federal government.

Synthetic biologists have pursued various initiatives to make their field safer since the anthrax letters of 2001. By far the most important involves the commercial "gene synthesis" companies whose artificial DNA makes synthetic biology possible in the first place. In 2009, the European trade group International Association-Synthetic Biology announced a strong antiterrorism standard that requires human experts to examine incoming customer orders for biological weapons threats. Like most industry standards, the proposal was contentious.

Indeed, at least two companies briefly advocated what they called a fast and cheap automated standard instead. But standards wars end quickly. Several months later, the opponents relented and announced that they, too, would use human screeners. Even two Chinese companies signed on.

Strangely, the only entity that doesn't endorse human screeners these days is the U.S. government. Days after the industry standards war ended, it published nonbinding "guidelines" saying what companies should do to detect DNA associated with the relatively short list of "select agent" organisms regulated by U.S. law. Remarkably, the government endorsed the same fast and cheap automated procedures that industry had already rejected.

Scientists organize communities to gain power over nature. So it is only right for those communities to debate and occasionally limit how this power is used. This doesn't mean that the rest of us must take those solutions on faith or that government regulators should stop asking whether communities have done enough. The U.S. government should encourage future self-governance initiatives as a matter of national policy.

10/22/2012