Preventing the Misuse of DNA Synthesis Technology


Establishing an international Common Mechanism for DNA Synthesis Screening

Challenge

Low-cost, globally distributed DNA synthesis capabilities increase the risk that malicious actors may exploit this technology to produce dangerous biological agents, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Action

Develop an international Common Mechanism to enable effective, efficient screening of DNA synthesis orders and customers.

Results

Developing tools to advance universal DNA synthesis screening in countries around the world to prevent the misuse of this technology and help safeguard modern bioscience.

Details

Project Staff

Sarah Carter, Ph.D.

Principal, Science Policy Consulting

Nicole Wheeler, Ph.D.

Research Fellow, University of Birmingham

DNA synthesis is a service that is widely used in bioscience research in laboratories around the world. It supports the growing bioeconomy and is critically important for a wide range of biotechnology advances. However, safeguards for DNA synthesis technology—to ensure that providers do not inadvertently sell the building blocks of dangerous pathogens to malicious actors—have not kept pace with growing global demand for this service and declining costs.

Screening DNA synthesis orders is not legally required by any national government. DNA providers who belong to the International Gene Synthesis Consortium voluntarily screen DNA synthesis orders and customers, but these companies only represent an estimated 80% of global DNA synthesis market share. That means approximately one in five orders likely goes unscreened. Moreover, as the cost of DNA synthesis continues to decline over time, the fixed costs of screening orders is placing a growing financial burden on commercial providers and straining the viability of the voluntary screening model.  Providing efficient, affordable tools for screening DNA orders is critically important for safeguarding DNA synthesis technology, and it could help universalize screening practices globally.

To preserve safe and secure global access to DNA synthesis services, NTI is working with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to develop an international Common Mechanism for DNA synthesis screening. This mechanism will be a tool that DNA providers can use to screen DNA synthesis orders, and it will be incorporated into benchtop DNA synthesis devices. The Common Mechanism also will offer guidelines that DNA providers can use for customer screening.

To advance this work, NTI and WEF have convened an international Technical Consortium of experts from across industry, academia, government, and civil society to develop the Common Mechanism for use by providers around the world. This work is focused on three main goals:

  1. Developing reference DNA sequence databases and algorithms for effective screening
  2. Developing guidance for customer screening
  3. Integrating the Common Mechanism into benchtop DNA synthesis devices

NTI | bio, working in partnership with the Technical Consortium, has begun to develop the software package for the Common Mechanism, with the aim of having an operational capability by the end of 2022.

The goal of this initiative is to give every DNA provider access to DNA synthesis screening tools, making it easier for them to screen DNA sequences and customers efficiently and at lower cost, resulting in improved global biosecurity and biosafety.

Activity

2022



2021


2020


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