The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee has published a set of UK government responses for its 'Evidence Check' programme on topics ranging from homeopathy to synthetic biology. Although the response from the Department of Health on the status of homeopathy in the health service is a little disconcerting, the most interesting response is from the Health and Safety Executive on possible future regulation over synthetic biology, particularly artificial cells.
The executive takes the view that most of the existing work on synthetic biology is already covered by regulations on work with recombinant DNA, which seems fair enough. However, the response adds:
"Future work may involve the creation of artificial cells, which would not fall within the scope of existing legislation. Consequently, a minor amendment is being proposed to the definition of GM as part of the development of a single regulatory framework for work with human and animal pathogens and GMOs. This will enable the regulations to cover artificial cells, should the technology develop in that direction. This change will be consulted on prior to the implementation of the new regulatory system."
The amendment for the single regulatory framework, the executive adds, is likely to extend the definition of genetic modification to include the "introduction of genetic material into a cell artificially created for that purpose, where the cell is then capable of replication or of transferring genetic material".
I can see two potential issues with this. One is what happens if the definition of artificial cell extends to bioreactors? Will that make the operation of biobreweries more difficult? And, more fundamentally, what does 'genetic material' mean in this context? Early artificial cells will doubtless use standard DNA but does the definition of gene cover synthetic nucleic acid strands, such as peptide nucleic acid or alternative 'genetic' systems based on alternative nucleic acids, or molecules with a similar function?