Imagine a world in which biological systems can sustainably produce individualized medicines or one in which it’s routine for kids to “code” to produce their own organisms. That day is approaching, and while society prepares for the promise that democratized biology could bring, we must simultaneously develop global biosecurity and safety norms that will reduce the risk of misuse and accidental release. The recent synthesis of the horsepox virus, a relative of the virus that causes smallpox, only underscores the urgency of this challenge.
In June in Singapore, scientists and emerging leaders from 40 countries convened for the Seventh International Meeting on Synthetic Biology (SB 7.0) to discuss the state of synthetic biology – a field known for its focus on global challenges, democratization of science, citizen engagement, and practice of open data and technology sharing. Synthetic biology holds major promise to provide solutions for tough societal challenges, such as health security, food security, energy security, and species conservation. While such peaceful applications should be pursued, rapid advances in technology will also increase the potential for deliberate misuse and accidental release. The rapid globalization of the field portends an urgent need for a global dialogue – led by innovators at the top of their disciplines – to create biosecurity and safety norms. Some have concluded that the best way to mitigate the risk that harmful synthetic agents could be misused or accidentally released is to move even more rapidly to create medical countermeasures response capability. Others have advocated for the urgent consideration of novel approaches to global governance for synthetic biology. The truth probably lies in the pursuit of both paths, with a healthy, dedicated discussion between health and security experts along the way.
My take is that the time is now for global leaders in synthetic biology to build biosecurity culture into their plans for developing the bioeconomy – from the bottom up. And, simultaneously, the biosecurity community must understand that the future of biosecurity also lies with research and innovation.