M. mycoides, the first synthetic bacterial cell. Credit: J.Craig Venter Institute

Synthetic biologists see freedom to operate in the new guidelines from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (PCSBI) published on 16 December 2010. “Measured” is the word being used by many researchers to describe the 18 recommendations put forward in New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies (http://www.bioethics.gov/documents/synthetic-biology/PCSBI-Synthetic-Biology-Report-12-16-10.pdf). The new report relies on existing regulations while remaining vigilant for technological developments in this still-young field. Most current research in synthetic biology still resembles conventional genetic engineering, with typical commercial efforts focused on modification of cellular biosynthetic pathways. As such, it should be business as usual for companies such as Berkeley, California–based Bio Architecture Lab (BAL), which is reprogramming algae for biofuel production. “We have a lot of control, and the guidelines are very well articulated for industrial microbiology and industrial fermentation,” explains co-founder Yasuo Yoshikuni, “so we don't see many obstacles.” The response from scientists in academia and industry has been broadly positive. J. Craig Venter, whose headline-earning production of a Mycoplasma bacterium with a synthetically constructed genome this past May (Science 329, 52–56, 2010) was a major driver for the PCSBI efforts, praised the report's findings as “wise, warranted and restrained” in a recent press release. Keeping guidelines current, however, will be a challenge in this rapidly moving area. Indeed, more than a third of the PCSBI recommendations are concerned with reviewing progress in the field over the next 18 months and the suitability of existing guidelines by scientists and policymakers, with the results to be made public. “At least in the present state of the field, the hype is far outpacing our capabilities,” says James Collins, a researcher at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and one of dozens of guest speakers who gave presentations to the PCSBI, “and I think the Commission did a very good job of assessing current capabilities.” Many see such efforts at transparency and combating hype—key themes of the report—as essential to the future of the field. Jay Keasling, of the University of California at Berkeley, says: “Scientists can't be so naive to think there won't be a possibility of bad things happening, but I think the public will grow to accept synthetic biology if we're able to talk about all of the great things that can be done with it.”