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Synthetic Biology

Volume 719: debated on Wednesday 2 June 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to review the regulation of synthetic biology in view of the recent creation of a synthetic organism.

My Lords, the Government are confident that the majority of synthetic biology, including the recent work published in Science, is covered by existing regulations that govern work with genetically modified organisms in the UK. In the future, there is a possibility that some synthetic biology involving the creation of artificial cells could fall outside the scope of the current regulations. An amendment to the regulations is being considered to ensure that artificial cells will also be covered.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. This is his first time at the Dispatch Box answering a Question and I wish him every success. Although the Minister’s particular responsibility is welfare reform, his department deals with health and safety. As he is answering this Question, should we conclude that the Government think that synthetic biology is a risky and dangerous topic or does the Minister agree with me that there are a lot of possible benefits?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that slightly back-handed compliment. I confess that synthetic biology is not perhaps the central part of my expertise. However, I am pretty confident that the rules and regulations governing this area, which is very important for the future, are robustly under control.

My Lords, the achievement by Dr Craig Venter, who has synthesised a chromosome and inserted it into a cell that is subsequently capable of replication, is clearly an important scientific development. It is so important that the implications of this discovery for the future are very substantial. Bearing in mind the regulations already in existence—to which the Minister referred—would it not be wise even at this stage to invite the Medical Research Council, the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences to comment on the implications of this discovery for human and animal biology?

My Lords, a process will start in September to look at the regulatory controls around this area. During that period, there will be a full consultation leading to changes to the regulations in order to reinforce protections, particularly around artificial cells. If all goes to plan, these should be ready by next April.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is not an artificial cell in the true sense because a cytoplasm of the cell came from an organism itself? That aside, systematic biology offers great potential for developments of all kinds. First, what is at stake here is to make sure that this technology is not patented. If it is, it will give a monopoly to a lot of other systematic biology technologies. Secondly, President Obama has already set up a bioethics advisory committee to advise him on the implications of this research. Does the Minister agree that it would be a good idea to do this in our country? Thirdly, if noble Lords attend or take part in next week’s debate on genomic medicine, they might learn even more.

My Lords, I look forward to attending that debate. As the noble Lord has pointed out, the experiment by Professor Craig Venter consisted essentially of taking the DNA from one bacterium, mycoplasma mycoides, modifying it and then putting it inside another bacterium, mycoplasma capricolum. Technically, that is not the creation of an artificial cell, but that is prospectively the next invention that could come along. That is why we need to make sure that the regulations will cover it.

I can inform the noble Lord that Craig Venter’s experiment is being patented, although observations in the scientific press indicate that that does not represent a risk of him subsequently seizing control of the whole of synthetic biology.

My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord on his visit to the Dispatch Box for the first time as a Minister. As a former parliamentary member of the Medical Research Council, whatever the technicalities here, can I encourage the Minister to think carefully about the proposal that the Government should consult distinguished medical, academic and, perhaps, spiritual people about the potential development of this technology at this stage rather than, as has been the case too often in the past, leaving such consultations until it is too late?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words. This is an important development and the UK takes a leading role in the area. We have several research establishments right at the forefront of this development, but I would take back from him the question of whether we should look at this brave new world—if you like—earlier rather than later. At the moment these are very early days in the development of this science.

My Lords, in welcoming the Minister to his position, as I do, the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, expressed some surprise that his area of responsibility was relevant. However, it may be of interest to note that the United States Congress responded immediately to this development and that it was the Energy and Commerce Committee which undertook the hearing because genome synthesis is likely to be helpful in the creation of new forms of biofuel energy. Given that, would the Minister find it helpful if your Lordships’ House were to respond in the same way by bringing together not only medical and academic research, but also the ethical and scientific wisdom that is available in this House? Indeed, I wonder if one of the committees of the House would be prepared to undertake an investigation of the kind that has been referred to. Does he think, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, that that would be a helpful intervention by this House?

My Lords, formally, BIS is the relevant authority in terms of supporting this new industry, not the DWP, which is in control of the safety aspects. However, that is an interesting proposal and we shall think about it.