It's rare that a government commission won't take the opportunity to increase its authority and its importance.  It's good job security and makes people feel relevant, even if it's not only unnecessary but being resisted by virtually everyone outside the commission, like in the case of the FCC trying to take over the Internet.

Yet The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, created by executive order in 2009, released its report on synthetic biology yesterday and said, just this once, things are okay without more rules.

Wait, didn't J. Craig Venter already create the first cell controlled by a synthetic genome, meaning some ethical issues had better be resolved sooner rather than later?  Indeed he did, and the predictable 'artificial life' brouhaha resulted in the media but that is the reason the group was convened on the matter.  The majority of the U.S. population doesn't even like a few cells left over from in vitro fertilization to be used in science experiments, so they sure are not going to like synthetic genomes being inserted into self-replicating cells.

But the same principle of “prudent vigilance” Bush used in regulating creation of human embryonic stem cell lines shortly after it became feasible can reach a different conclusion; Pres. Bush's advisors believed limiting funding to existing lines until things became clearer was the wise choice but the Obama commission determined that risks are far enough in the future we can tackle them then.   Same principle, different result.   And both were correct at the time, given the data available.   Government was 2 for 2 in the last 10 years.  Who knew that was possible?

Amy Gutmann was named by President Barack Obama as chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues
Amy Gutmann, chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues and president of the University of Pennsylvania.

What is synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology is basically what the words read like contextually - using biology and engineering to artificially create DNA and systems or organisms with particular characteristics.

Why environmentalists are nervous about synthetic biology

The people who won't be happy with this, unless they see a Democrat as president and ignore anything else, are environmentalists concerned about threats to biodiversity and the environment.  Synthetic biology is GMO on steroids and it will soon be something the Do It Yourself (D.I.Y.) folks in biology, or any company, might be able to tackle.  Currently it is obviously too expensive for garage biology but publishing a few standards isn't going to be satisfactory protection against release of an organism capable of proliferation, cross-breeding or crowding out of existing species.

Why ethicists are nervous about synthetic biology

The commission said there were few concerns from secular or religious ethicists, which I find hard to believe if they made an effort to include them, though unlike human embryonic stem cells, this technology is not being hyped by science as some savior of medicine (ignoring the temporary 'artificial life' media hysteria, which wasn't done by scientists) but any technology that could be capable of engineering complex life is going to be monitored carefully.

Venter's man-made genome was inserted into an already living cell so it was not artificial life but that is a nuance many in the public will not understand, so the Commission recommends a ""-style (insert your favorite fact-checking organization if you think they are shills for some cause or another) site for biology questions about what this can or cannot do.

How synthetic biology can help soon(ish)

Agriculture and energy are obviously the reason this is exciting - plants that are more resistant to drought or blight would be welcome and the commission also notes that short-term development of a synthetic version of the (herbal) antimalarial drug Artemisinin would save hundreds of thousands of lives, though using DDT again would do that also, and much cheaper.   Still, the clean energy aspects, like algae that can capture carbon dioxide and make new hydrocarbons that could go into refineries, are most worthwhile.

And the science community deserves credit for being out in front asking that this be addressed - Venter had been asking for a bioethical review since the late 1990s and has participated in numerous discussions, including here.

I am usually a limited government guy, at least in comparison to most on Science 2.0, so I think they got this right.   It certainly won't satisfy "precautionary principle" types who believe if there is any chance in an infinite universe of an event happening no science should ever get done (I am talking to you, anti-LHC kooks) but it also does not squash developing technology with so many restrictions it never takes off (the Internet did pretty well left to its own) so this is a good road map.

But those environmental and religious groups with objections don't like the conclusions - saying that the precautionary principle has been ignored and that reliance on 'suicide genes' to prevent unwanted proliferation is not enough.   Clearly before it gets to production environmental risks have to be factored in and environmental groups claim they are not being anti-science but in squelching research because of unknown fears, those left wing groups are certainly more anti-science than any Republicans.

Report: NEW DIRECTIONS: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies