Synthetic biology, DNA writer, and biosecurity

This article was originally published here

We are in the Wild West of biosecurity in the age of synthetic biology.

Two weeks ago, a study from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, & Medicine identified and ranked concerns related to synthetic biology-enabled biosecurity threats. Many of these areas hinge on our ability to engineer microorganisms, which entails designing and synthesizing large pieces of DNA. 

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Are there any near-term threats? No. What about in 5 years? Much more likely, especially when engineering biology becomes easier, with the advent of more accessible engineering tools, such as cheaper DNA sequencing and synthesis, as well as gene editing tools such as CRISPR (You can see a list of "bioweapons" here).

Self-policing is put in place less than a decade ago. The International Gene Synthesis Consortium (IGSC) is a valiant effort led by the industry who

screen the complete DNA and translated amino acid sequences of every double-stranded gene order against the IGSC’s comprehensive curated Regulated Pathogen Database derived from international pathogen and toxin sequence databases.

In addition, Gingko Bioworks, whose mission is to make biology easier to engineer, is working with the US government to develop software programmes to monitor DNA synthesis using the wealth of data created internally (Gingko claims to order up to 25 million bases of DNA per month, about 40% of the world's gene writing needs).

But what if a personal DNA writer becomes a reality in a few years, in which more sophisticated DNA (even genomes) can be synthesized but are harder to monitor? Personally, I believe companies like Nuclera, who are bringing technologies such as DNA writers to the market, have the responsibility to ensure their users do not generate biosecurity concerns. 

It is a delicate balance between what is made possible, and what is considered a threat (This reminds me of the ongoing ethical discussions about gene editing). If we want to harvest parts of the genome of a virulent strain to make new medicine, should we have the ability to synthesize such a DNA sequence? And who is "we" in this case? Should the privilege of making certain DNA sequences only be given to the highly trained? Or will this inhibit citizen science? Is synthetic biology in this era similar to the internet in the1970s, when only the experts have access? Will synthetic biology become what the internet has become in the subsequent decades, in which exploding access to the technology enables a new breed of scientist-engineer to change the way we work with biology and beyond? 

It is certainly good news that the industry is taking initiatives to make sure the looming biosecurity concerns do not become a hindrance to the growth of the synthetic biology industry (Of course this could be in part driven by profit motives). But the applications of synthetic biology, I would argue, are much more far-reaching than what the petrochemical industry enabled. One can imagine that every single material derived from the petrochemical industry being produced by synthetic biology means. Therefore, in terms of security, I think it goes far beyond nuclear, radiological, and chemical threats the world has seen.

That's why I believe governmental agencies, as well as international and non-profit organizations, must get involved, starting with early discussions about the capabilities of synthetic biology with the industry, in order to monitor, support, collaborate, and guide the development of this industry, thus also creating a key link to educate the general public.

After all, synthetic biology should be used to make better rice, not better ricin.

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