Press Release

Major New Policy Study Will Explore Risks, Benefits of Synthetic Genomics

ROCKVILLE, MD - June 28, 2005 — Today three organizations, the J. Craig Venter Institute (Venter Institute), the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), announced a new project to examine the societal implications of synthetic genomics, a new field involving the development of viruses and cells using designed and engineered DNA. The 15-month study will explore the risks and benefits of this emerging technology, as well as possible safeguards to prevent abuse, including bioterrorism.

"The field of synthetic genomics has the potential for groundbreaking scientific advances, including the development of alternative energy sources, and the production of new vaccines and pharmaceuticals," stated J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., founder and president of the Venter Institute. "Synthetic genomics has the potential to enable significant societal, environmental, and medical benefits and with this study we are trying to help ensure that outcome," noted Dr. Venter.

Funded by a $570,060 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the multi-organization effort will engage scientists and policymakers to better understand the potential risks and benefits associated with synthetic genomics. The study is jointly directed by Robert M. Friedman, Ph.D., of the Venter Institute, Gerald L. Epstein, Ph.D., of CSIS, and Drew Endy, Ph.D., of MIT.

"The project will serve as a model for policy makers, scientists, and engineers who are evaluating potential dual-use' research," commented Dr. Endy, an assistant professor in MIT's Biological Engineering Division and co-founder of the MIT Synthetic Biology Working Group.

"The scientific and security communities have the responsibility to prepare for the opportunities and misuse that may arise from any new technology," noted Dr. Epstein, of the Homeland Security Program at CSIS.

The study, expected to be completed by July 2006, will include a series of workshops analyzing technological and societal concerns. In addition, a meeting including policymakers, scientists, and the media will be conducted to discuss oversight, governance, and monitoring issues. Study results, including a suite of evaluated policy options, will be reported in numerous scientific and policy journals and will be disseminated broadly to the public.

J. Craig Venter Institute

The J. Craig Venter Institute is a not-for-profit research institute dedicated to the advancement of the science of genomics; the understanding of its implications for society; and communication of those results to the scientific community, the public, and policymakers. Founded by J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., the Venter Institute is home to approximately 200 staff and scientists with expertise in human and evolutionary biology, genetics, bioinformatics/informatics, information technology, high-throughput DNA sequencing, genomic and environmental policy research, and communications. The Venter Institute is a 501 (c)(3) organization.

Center for Strategic & International Studies

CSIS is an independent, nonpartisan policy research organization. It has provided world leaders with strategic insights on — and practical policy solutions to — current and emerging global issues for over 40 years. The Center has extensive experience examining issues at the intersection of science and security, analyzing and mitigating terrorist threats, and combating weapons of mass destruction. The CSIS staff includes more than 120 analysts working to address the changing dynamics of international security and economics. http://www.csis.org

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT is an educational and research university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century. Its five schools and one college encompass 34 academic departments, divisions, and degree-granting programs, as well as numerous interdisciplinary centers, laboratories, and programs whose work cuts across traditional departmental boundaries. `

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a philanthropic nonprofit institution, was established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan, Jr., then president and chief executive officer of the General Motors Corporation. The Foundation provides support in selected areas of research that are of scientific significance and where its support can make a difference. Areas in this program include molecular evolution, theoretical neurobiology, computational molecular biology, astrophysics, limits to knowledge, and marine science among others.

Media Contacts

Heather Kowalski
Kowalski Communications

Laura Wilkinson
Center for Strategic & International Studies

Denise Brehm MIT News Office 617-253-2700