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July 17, 2014

Subcommittee Democrats Discuss Engineering Biology

(Washington, DC) – Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Technology held a hearing to examine public and private biomedical research and development as well as discuss engineering biology. Testifying before the Subcommittee were Dr. Harold Varmus, Director of the National Cancer Institute and Former Director of the National Institutes of Health; Dr. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, President of The Rockefeller University; Dr. Jay Keasling, Director of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC) and Professor of Biochemical Engineering, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley; and Dr. J. Craig Venter, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the J. Craig Venter Institute. 

Engineering biology is the science and engineering of cellular and molecular processes to advance fundamental understanding of complex natural biological systems and to develop new or make advancements to existing products, processes, and systems.

Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) said in his opening statement, “The emerging field of engineering biology has grown out of the decades-old field of genetic engineering. Since the 1970’s scientists have been using more advanced tools to directly insert new genes or delete genes from plant and microbial genomes. Engineering biology is the next step in this field, and is being accelerated by the development of technologies such as DNA sequencing—which has gone from taking years and costing billions of dollars to taking just days and costing a few thousands of dollars.  That truly is amazing… Since this emerging field could have significant economic benefit for the United States, it is important that we make the necessary federal investments in both the foundational research and across the potential application areas.”

Dr. Keasling discussed the need for sustained federal investments in this field.  He said, “The U.S. has been a leader in this field because of early and focused federal investment, but we now face stiff competition from overseas and uncertainty in the future of our pre-competitive investments here at home. I believe that now is the time for the federal government to work with academic and industrial researchers to launch a national initiative in engineering biology to establish new research directions and technology goals, improve interagency coordination and planning processes, drive technology transfer, and help ensure optimal returns on the Federal investment.”

He continued, “Just as the information age transformed life in the 20th century, so too the engineering of biology is poised to bring tremendous changes to society in the 21st century. And we will be able to do it more quickly, more cost-effectively, and more precisely than ever before. But we must act quickly to put a national initiative in play; the role of the U.S. in the bioeconomy that results from the tools of synthetic biology will be determined by the actions of the federal government in the next five years.”

Dr. Varmus also stressed the need for federal funding of research.  He said, “This is a pivotal moment for our enterprise.  On the one hand, the United States continues to lead the world in its investments, both public and private, in most fields of science and technology…But, in recent years, the United States has been challenged by fiscal constraints while other countries have quickened the pace of their investments.”

Ranking Member of the Full Committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) discussed her draft legislation in her statement for the record.  Ms. Johnson’s bill  would establish a framework for greater coordination of federal investments in engineering biology and lead to a national strategy for these investments; focus on expanding public-private partnerships and on education and training for the next generation of engineering biology researchers; ensure any potential ethical, legal, environmental, and societal issues associated with engineering biology are appropriately addressed; and ensure that public engagement and outreach are an integral part of the research initiative.

She said, “Right now, we are still the leader in engineering biology, but we must continue our work to ensure that we do not cede our leadership position. This field has too much potential to grow our economy, create jobs, and improve our quality of life. Even though we are in an increasingly interconnected world, it is important to do all we can to promote innovation and job creation here at home. I am hopeful that we can work together across the aisle to ensure that the United States remains a leader in engineering biology.”