Democratization of Synthetic Biology: Implications for Biosecurity and Pandemic Threats

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.  

How can this be accomplished?  For new multi-disciplinary initiatives, such as Genome Project-write – as well as other emerging global consortia – specific protocols could be established to build biosecurity into designs and concepts for foundries (bio factories) housed at major global institutions.  Such institutions could also prioritize biosecurity-by-design to mitigate risk as new technologies and applications are developed.  New technologies that decrease the likelihood of misuse or accidental release should also be encouraged as an integral part of these activities.  And finally, as the global architecture for synthetic biology is further developed and democratized, the community would also be wise to create specific portals for engaging the general public and developing standard, global norms that would be required for “opting in” to citizen science projects of the future.  

So, where do we go from here?  Those involved with citizen science, such as the emerging “bionet,” which was recently launched as an open technology platform for exchanging biomaterials, as well as academic and industrial consortia focused on synthetic biology solutions for emerging global challenges, should take the opportunity now – while the field is growing and expanding globally – to build in a biosecurity ethos that will incentivize a future generation to consider such approaches as they are developing new technologies and applications.  By coupling biosecurity with innovation, we can create a foundation that will benefit the shared goals of both communities, which is, after all, about saving and enhancing the quality of life for all people.  

July 6, 2017
Elizabeth Cameron, PhD
Elizabeth Cameron, PhD

Vice President, Global Biological Policy and Programs

Most Popular