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Synthetic Biology Industry Poses Security Challenges, Experts Say

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

(Feb. 9) -Model DNA strands on display at a London museum in 2003. Current federal guidance might not be sufficient to prevent the potential exploitation of synthetic biology technology by extremists to create biological weapons, experts said last week (Paul Gilham/Getty Images). (Feb. 9) -Model DNA strands on display at a London museum in 2003. Current federal guidance might not be sufficient to prevent the potential exploitation of synthetic biology technology by extremists to create biological weapons, experts said last week (Paul Gilham/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The rate of technological change produced by the rapid growth of the synthetic biology field could outpace government restrictions intended to ensure extremists cannot acquire or produce biological warfare materials, experts said at a conference last Thursday (see GSN, Dec. 16, 2010).

Synthetic pathogens are man-made infectious agents that are created either from the manufacture or adaptation of DNA, cells and other biological structures.

While scientists have been tweaking genetic sequences for decades, recent breakthroughs such as the production from scratch of cells that do not exist in nature have some security experts worried the technology could be exploited by terrorists to create or redesign biological weapons.

"The intentionally malicious use of it is something that is of concern," said New America Foundation fellow Robert Wright, who moderated a panel on the issue at a technology conference in Washington. "It’s very hard to regulate at the national level."

The direct modification of genetic structures has been touted by synthetic biology proponents as opening up doors for significant advances in such varied fields as medicine, agriculture and energy. Work is already being done on projects such as modifying yeast to produce the ingredients used in malaria antivirals.

Work begins with the gene synthesis firms. After receiving a purchase order for a specific genetic structure, the sequence companies fabricate the short building blocks of DNA known as "oligonucleotides." These "oligos" are assembled into a full gene, which is then inserted onto a plasmid. The plasmid is next injected into a bacterium. Lastly, genes are grown and withdrawn from the cloned bacteria.

Experts at the conference co-sponsored by Google and the New America Foundation stressed the need for the government to continually track developments in synthetic biology so that appropriate measures could be devised and implemented to ensure the public is protected from any possible biological threats created in laboratories.

"The cost of sequencing [DNA] is coming way, way down. The speed of sequencing is going way, way up, which means that the manufacturing of synthetic life ... will be doable not just by big corporations but ultimately … and by ultimately I mean before the end of this century, by individuals," said panel speaker and Canadian award-winning science fiction author Robert Sawyer.

Sawyer predicted that in time, what is today a $5,000 DNA synthesizing device would be as inexpensive and easy to acquire as a "Cracker Jack prize."

"To really think concretely here we have to consider the fact that costs can drop. They can drop by as much as a million-fold in six years in the case of [digitally] reading and writing DNA," Harvard Medical School genetics professor George Church told conference attendees via a video link.

The decreasing cost of synthetic biology technology coupled with its increasing ease of use also means that more individuals are capable of creating and altering genetic structures. This poses another biodefense issue should criminals or terrorists seek to produce and enhance their own man-made pathogens, potentially even making them deadlier and more contagious than existing viruses and bacteria (see GSN, Sept. 10, 2010).

Church said concerns about genetic sequencing technology being misused were justified. He argued that the present state of affairs in which the U.S. government urges the commercial gene synthesis industry to police itself is not sufficient for guarding against a bioterrorism incident.

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department presently encourages providers to digitally cross-check gene sequences requested for purchase to ensure they do not match all or part of the DNA codes for any of the federal government’s 82 "select agents" -- pathogens and biological toxins such as smallpox and anthrax that represent an extreme threat to public health (see GSN, Oct. 14, 2010).

Companies are urged to report to federal authorities any sequence orders that raise repeated "red flags" -- an unusually large order of genetic sequences or several orders for the same sequence placed in a short amount of time, as well as customers that are evasive about their identity and affiliation.

"It’s not sufficient to just deal with voluntary methodology. I think we need active surveillance of all possible participants," Church said.

Wright suggested the U.S. government could mandate that the equipment needed to synthesize DNA have built-in surveillance technology that would act as a backstop or kill switch, blocking the sequencing of any genetic blueprints that the end-user is not authorized to be using.

Electronically monitoring the work of synthetic biologists is not that complicated and a surveillance program could be put in place with relative simplicity, minimal invasiveness and at a low cost, according to Church.

He told Global Security Newswire that the monitoring could be conducted through laws mandating that all gene sequencing machines be connected to a system of Internet databases that would cross-check all DNA sequence orders before they are delivered.

"It checks to see if you’re making something that could go wrong and then it checks to see if you have a grant or approval to work with that," ensuring that rogue scientists or amateur gene-splicers are not experimenting with pathogens such as smallpox, Church said.

Today, the fastest machines in the field take hours to sequence DNA structures but the database searches should be completed in seconds, he added, ensuring that purchase orders are not carried through before a cross-check has been completed. "The computer searchers exist now. The instruments exist now. All that would be required is a little bit of technical assistance," according to Church.

"We won’t restrict the innovation but we will make sure that we know what everyone is doing," he said.

Church contended that new recommendations on the ethics of synthetic biology released in December by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues does not go far enough in guarding against potential malicious users. Those recommendations are separate from the HHS screening guidance.

The presidential commission concluded that the risks of a biological weapon being created using gene-sequencing methods were still very low. While it did not call for federal rules that would mandate surveillance of the field, the panel suggested establishing an organization that would fact-check various industry claims, as part of efforts to foster an ongoing public debate on issues surrounding the evolving synthetic biology field.

Church also took issue with the expert panel’s failure to call on gene synthesis firms to cross-check single-stranded DNA sequence orders as they are currently urged by the Health and Human Services Department to do with requests for double-stranded DNA sequences. Double-stranded DNA contains the same genetic information as single-strands but in helical form. He contended that this creates an additional security loophole that bad actors could exploit.

In issuing the updated screening guidance in October, the Health and Human Services Department argued that because single-stranded genetic fragments are commonly used in molecular biology, screening all of the many sequence orders would be too cumbersome for synthesis firms. The department also said in making its exception that it was more difficult to manufacture "agents of concern" using single-stranded oligonucleotides.

"They make this who knows where argument that computers can handle double-strand DNA and can’t handle single-strand DNA," the Harvard geneticist said, arguing that the difference was arbitrary. "If I wanted to build something nasty, I would just order it in single-strand form."

The steps required to grow a single-strand sequence into a double-strand sequence are so "totally trivial" that high school students could perform the work operating out of a kitchen, Church contended.

"Brownie recipes that you download from the Internet are more complicated than this. ... If you can cook then you can do this," he said.

Clarification: This story has been amended to note that the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released only recommendations on the ethics of synthetic biology.

NTI Analysis