BiothreatsBiosecurity and synthetic biology: it is time to get serious

By Eric van der Helm

Published 1 September 2017

Synthetic biology has only been recently recognized as a mature subject in the context of biological risk assessment — and the core focus has been infectious diseases. In the case of biosecurity, we’re already dependent on biology [with respect to food, health etc.] but we still have an opportunity to develop biosecurity strategies before synthetic biology is ubiquitous. There is still an opportunity to act now and put norms and practices in place because the community is still relatively small. “If scientists are not taking care of biosecurity now, other people will start taking care of it, and they most likely will start preventing researchers from doing good science.”

Last month, the SB7.0 conference attracted around 800 synthetic biology experts from all around the world to Singapore. Iwas attending as part of the SB7.0 biosecurity fellowship, together with thirty other early-career synthetic biologists and biosecurity researchers. The main goal of the conference was to start a dialogue on biosecurity policies geared specifically towards synthetic biology.

As Matt Watson from the Center for Health Security points out on his blog, the likely earliest account of biological warfare, was the one describing the 1346 attack on the Black Sea port of Caffa from an obscure memoir written in Latin. A lot has changed since then, and biosecurity is now subject of the mainstream media — as exemplified by the recently published Wired article “The Pentagon ponders the threat of synthetic bioweapons.”

Also read:

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

“Growing concern about amateur ‘biohackers’ creating biological weapons,” HSNW, 8 September 2016

U.S. defense agencies dominate federal synthetic biology research,” HSNW, 21 September 2015

“More research needed to address synthetic biology security concerns,” HSNW, 14 October 2014

“Synthetic biology makes bioweapons easier to make,” HSNW, 17 March 2014


Defining biosafety and biosecurity
It is important to first get the scope right; terms like biosecurity and biosafety are sometimes used interchangeably, but there is a meaningful difference. In a nutshell, ‘Biosafety protects people from germs – biosecurity protects germs from people, as simplified during an UN meeting.

  • Biosafety refers to the protection of humans and the facilities that deal with biological agents and waste: this has also traditionally encompassed GMO regulations.
  • Biosecurity is the protection of biological agents that could be intentionally misused

Although the meanings of biosafety and biosecurity are often somewhat interchangeable in the remainder of this blog, I focus on biosecurity as this mainly involves the human component of policy making.

During the conference, Gigi Gronvall from the Center for Health Security illustrated a prime example of biosecurity from a 2010 WHO report on the Variola virus, the smallpox pathogen: “nobody anticipated that […] advances in genome sequencing and gene synthesis would render substantial portions of [Variola virus] accessible to anyone with an internet connection and access to a DNA synthesizer. That “anyone” could even be a well‐intentioned researcher, unfamiliar with smallpox and lacking an appreciation of the special rules that govern access to [Variola virus] genes.”