Synthetic Genomics: Who is watching?

Date & Time

Wed, 09/01/2010


Recently scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute created the first “synthetic” bacterial cell.  A team of 24 researchers in San Diego and Rockville, MD, synthesized the genome of a small bacterium from the chemicals that make up DNA. They then “booted up” that genome in a cell to create the first cell controlled completely by a synthetic genome.

The emerging field variously called synthetic biology or synthetic genomics, combines methods for the chemical synthesis of DNA with computational techniques to design it. These methods allow scientists and engineers to construct genetic material that would be impossible or impractical to produce using more conventional biotechnological approaches.

Scientists foresee many potential positive applications including new pharmaceuticals, biologically produced (“green”) fuels, and the possibility of rapidly generating vaccines against emerging microbial diseases.

However, as with many technologies, there is the potential for misuse and accidents. Finding ways to mitigate possible nefarious uses and to prevent accidents in the laboratories of legitimate users so that positive uses are not undercut is an important concern of scientists, governments, and a large variety of stakeholders.

Friedman discussed a two year study with colleagues from JCVI, MIT, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies on the safety and security concerns posed by this new technology. After providing an overview of the technology and the societal issues that it raises, he shared options that would help to enhance biosecurity, foster laboratory safety, and protect the communities and environment outside of laboratories.


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Robert Friedman
Synthetic Genomics

Robert Friedman is Director for California at the Venter Institute. Friedman directs JCVI’s Policy Center and is also active in several projects ongoing in the Institute’s Environmental Genomics Group. Prior to joining the Venter Institute, Friedman was Vice President for Research at The Heinz Center, a nonprofit policy research organization that brings together collaborators from government, industry, environmental organizations, and academia. Earlier, Friedman was a Senior Associate at the Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Congress (OTA). For 16 years, he advised Congressional committees on issues involving environmental and natural resources policy.

Dr. Friedman received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in Ecological Systems Analysis, concentrating in ecology, environmental engineering, and systems analysis. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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