Code of conduct for synthetic biology

15 December 2009

Synthetic biology refers to the artificial construction of novel biological systems or organisms; building on genetic engineering techniques, some researchers are using synthetic genomics to create new organisms (see previous news story). Societal and regulatory issues in this field have been discussed and a report commissioned by the BBSRC’s Bioscience for Society Panel highlighted some key issues including uncontrolled release, bioterrorism, patenting and the creation of monopolies, trade and global justice and creating artificial life (see previous news).

The International Association of Synthetic Biology (IASB), a consortium of leading companies in this field and was formed in order to work with governments and other stakeholders to develop best practices ensuring that this field develops in a safe and responsible way. As part of this remit, they have released a code of conduct for gene synthesis (see press release). The Code gives a comprehensive set of Best Practices for DNA sequence screening, customer screening and ethical, safe and secure conduct in gene synthesis. These have been modelled after biosecurity procedures currently implemented by gene synthesis companies and were developed further following a workshop involving key stakeholders. The Code is aimed at companies as well as academic and public institutions that practice gene synthesis. More specifically it has been “expressly designed to guide companies and other entities engaged in the synthesis of double stranded DNA of minimum 200 base pairs in length and multi-gene constructs.” Along with outlining general considerations, the best practices cover, risk assessment, record keeping, cooperation with authorities, sequence screening, response to identified threats and customer screening.

The IASB is planning to reach out to others in the industry to sign up to this standard and are hoping to develop a certificate which characterizes institutions that are committed to this code of conduct. The formation of a technical expert group on biosecurity and a database on virulence factors, which would contain data on sequence level virulence factors and pathogenicity has also been discussed by the IASB. This would allow exchange of data on screening decisions, thereby facilitating the sequence screening procedure of the Code. 

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