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Synthetic biology - which includes the development of fuels, organ tissue and tumor-destroying bacteria - became a focus of government and law enforcement agencies after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that quickly followed it. The field's "extraordinary promise," a presidential commission concluded in December, is accompanied by "potential risks" to humans and the environment.

Even worse, it is possible that such designer organisms could fall into the hands of a "deranged individual or terrorist, who could create and release a deadly virus, said Richard H. Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University. The potential for such a chain of events has cast a pall over the discipline, he said.

A dispute at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, a prominent coalition of biology labs that is led by the University of California, Berkeley, illustrates the potentially dangerous consequences of the research. At the heart of the controversy is a biosafety expert who resigned last summer amid complaints that the coalition was not doing enough to prevent a biological disaster.

The expert, Paul M. Rabinow...