Synthetic DNA makers alerted to bioterrorism threats
Scientists have been engineering genetic sequences for decades and commercial gene sequencing has been around for years — but this year, researchers for the first time were able to design and produce cells that do not exist in nature without using pre-existing biological matter — marking the latest evolution in the rapidly advancing field of synthetic biology; the developments could pave the way for advancements in medicine, energy, and agriculture, but also could put sensitive materials in the wrong hands; it will soon be possible to recreate bacterial pathogens like smallpox — and even enhance these pathogens, making them more potent
To make it harder for bioterrorists to build dangerous viruses from scratch, guidelines for firms who supply “custom DNA” are being introduced in the United States.
The United States and other countries restrict who can work with certain germs, but it might be possible to build some viruses from their genes. A number of firms supply DNA sequences to order. New Scientist reports that its 2005 investigation raised alarms when it found that only five out of twelve of these firms in North America and Europe always screened orders for sequences that might be used in bioweapons.
The United States now wants firms to verify a customer’s identity and make sure they are not on a list of banned buyers. It also wants them to screen orders for sequences that are unique to Select Agents, a list of microbes the United States deems dangerous.
Scientists, however, commenting on the draft rules earlier this year, fear that sequences from microbes other than Select Agents might also be dangerous (see “Day of synthetic pathogens-based bioterrorism nears,” 16 September 2010 HSNW; and “Garage-lab bugs: spread of bioscience increases bioterrorism risks,” 13 August 2010 HSNW.).
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says not enough is known about them to say which ones should arouse a firm’s suspicions. Other potential weaknesses include the fact that the rules are voluntary, and that much custom DNA is made outside the United States (see “Gene synthesis companies establish measures to counter bioterrorism,” 20 November 2009 HSNW).