Biothreats, bioterrorism, synthetic biology, bioengineering | Homeland Security Newswire

Designer pathogensS&T sponsors workshop on “sequences of interest”

Published 8 February 2018

Synthetic biology has led to the creation of new products, markets, companies, and industries. At the same time, the technology poses potential risks to biosafety and biosecurity, as recently demonstrated by the synthesis of horsepox virus, a cousin of variola, the virus which causes smallpox. DHS S&T sponsored a workshop to discuss the evolving role of databases which contain genetic sequences of pathogens and toxins — termed “sequences of interest” — which pose safety or security concerns.

Synthetic biology has led to the creation of new products, markets, companies, and industries. At the same time, the technology poses potential risks to biosafety and biosecurity, as recently demonstrated by the synthesis of horsepox virus, a cousin of variola, the virus which causes smallpox.

On 29-30 January 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science & Technology Directorate (S&T) sponsored a workshop to discuss the evolving role of databases which contain genetic sequences of pathogens and toxins — termed “sequences of interest” — which pose safety or security concerns. Saskia Popescu writes in the Pandora Report that the workshop brought together stakeholders from government, industry, and academia to discuss the need for such databases, review current databases and those under development, explore potential applications and users of these types of databases, and consider the potential risks that they pose due to malicious or inadvertent misuse. “The workshop provided a valuable opportunity to explore the scientific and technical aspects of constructing such databases, maintenance and sustainability challenges, and the trade-offs involving functionality, accessibility, affordability, confidentiality, and security,” Popescu writes.

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Also read:

· “Ban on deadly pathogen research lifts, but controversy remains,” HSNW, 15 January 2018

· “U.S. ends 3-year ban on research involving enhanced-lethality viruses,” HSNW, 20 December 2017

· Jenna E. Gallegos and Jean Peccoud, “DNA has gone digital – what could possibly go wrong?” HSNW, 15 December 2017

· “Synthetic biology and bioengineering: Opportunities and risks,” HSNW 27 November 2017

· “Lax policies governing dual-use research, scientists unaware of research’s biosecurity implications,” HSNW, 15 September 2017

· Eric van der Helm, “Biosecurity and synthetic biology: it is time to get serious,” HSNW, 1 September 2017

· “Identifying vulnerabilities posed by synthetic biology,” HSNW, 25 August 2017

· “Making gene editing safer,” HSNW, 24 July 2017
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She notes that the workshop did not produce a consensus on the best path forward, but it played an important role in educating the participants on the most critical issues and facilitating a dialogue among a diverse range of stakeholders on this important topic.

The workshop also came at a propitious time as stakeholders grapple with the changing landscape of the biotech industry and advances in DNA synthesis technology. For instance, the International Gene Synthesis Consortium, a group of the leading DNA synthesis companies that have adopted customer and sequence screening protocols to prevent the misuse of their products, has expanded in size and geographic scope and recently updated its biosecurity protocols. The U.S. government is also reviewing the customer and sequence screening guidance it issued in 2010 and is considering whether, and how, to update it. “Should a decision be made to proceed, stakeholder engagement would be a significant part of the review, just as it was a significant part of the guidance’s original development,” Popescu writers.