Designer pathogensPreventing intentional or accidental creation of synthetic biological threats

Published 14 February 2018

Battelle has been awarded a contract by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) to develop threat assessment software to help prevent the creation of dangerous organisms. Using predictive algorithms, the software would be able to determine the suspected function of a DNA fragment based solely on its sequence. It would be used to screen DNA sequences to determine whether the sequence is related to any known organisms, predict the function of unknown sequences, and assign a threat level based on the potential for harm. By screening and characterizing genetic sequences before they are synthesized, the software would enable the end user to vastly reduce the risk that biological threats will be created either intentionally or accidentally.

Battelle has been awarded a contract by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) to develop threat assessment software to help prevent the creation of dangerous organisms. 

IARPA’s Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats (Fun GCAT) program is aimed at the creation of a critical new capability to counter potential threats associated with advancements in biotechnology. Synthetic biology and genetic engineering now enable researchers to synthetically create microbes using raw genetic materials or edit DNA to create customized microorganisms. Such advances can be used to create specialized microbes with a variety of beneficial purposes, such as synthesizing medicines, breaking down environmental contaminants, or improving agricultural yields. However, the same technologies, in very rare cases, can be used to synthesize or alter harmful pathogens to make them more contagious or virulent.

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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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“Biotechnology is more accessible than ever, with internet-accessible products and services enabling advances in numerous industries,” said Battelle Research Leader Dr. Trevor Petrel. “The exponential growth in capability of genetic engineering as well as accessibility to these biological tools requires that we rethink conventional biosecurity to evolve with the rapid pace of technology. Genetic engineering tasks that previously took weeks and considerable skill to accomplish now require less effort, skill, and technical resources.”

Battelle says that under the Fun GCAT contract, Battelle is developing software to assess the threat potential of genetic sequences. Using predictive algorithms, the software would be able to determine the suspected function of a DNA fragment based solely on its sequence. It would be used to screen DNA sequences to determine whether the sequence is related to any known organisms, predict the function of unknown sequences, and assign a threat level based on the potential for harm. By screening and characterizing genetic sequences before they are synthesized, the software would enable the end user to vastly reduce the risk that biological threats will be created either intentionally or accidentally.

Battelle says it is working with key industry collaborators including Ginkgo Bioworks, One Codex and Twist Bioscience, companies which currently employ advanced biosecurity practices before creating any product for customers, to incorporate cutting-edge computational approaches into the software tool and to provide insight into the effectiveness and practicality of the solution in real-world settings.

IARPA’s Fun GCAT program pushes us to expand on innovative techniques in bioinformatics, software engineering and data analytics,” said Principal Investigator Dr. Omar P. Tabbaa. “We’ve assembled top experts from across the biotech industry including statisticians, software developers, biologists and physicists all working on a problem of great societal impact, all working as a team.”

Although currently focused on developing technology to stop the intentional or unintentional creation of biological threats, the team sees potential for applying this experience to other emerging markets, including predictive health and medical countermeasures development.

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