BIORISKSDeveloping Safety Tools for Synthetic Biology to Defend Against Potential Misuse of AI

Published 19 March 2024

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to help develop biotechnologies that can improve human health or that may increase harm. Organizations performing nucleic acid synthesis must be aware of AI-related risks and need guidance in identifying and mitigating those risks.

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has entered a two-year cooperative research agreement with the nonprofit Engineering Biology Research Consortium (EBRC) to develop screening and safety tools to defend against the potential misuse of artificial intelligence (AI) related to nucleic acid synthesis, a growing field of synthetic biology with great promise but also serious risks. 

NIST initiated this collaboration to fulfill a task within the recent Executive Order on Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence that charges multiple agencies — including NIST — with developing standards, best practices and implementation guides for nucleic acid synthesis, in light of advances in AI. The Executive Order on AI calls on NIST to initiate an effort to engage with industry and other stakeholders to develop safeguards to defend against potential misuse of AI related to the synthesis of genetic material. NIST will work with EBRC to identify best practices and policies to ensure public safety.

“This agreement is the first step toward promoting safe research in engineering biology as tasked to NIST under the recent AI executive order,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Laurie E. Locascio. “The promise of this technology is immense, but clearly safeguards are needed to protect the public, and this is an important first step toward creating them.” 

Researchers have used synthetic nucleic acids to achieve groundbreaking biotechnology innovations, such as new drugs and therapies, but the growing availability and ease of synthesizing nucleic acids has raised safety concerns — particularly in light of advances in artificial intelligence — that could pose risks to the public, environment and national security.

The partnership between NIST and EBRC aims to identify and describe the necessary infrastructure for ensuring safety and security in the synthesis of nucleic acids. As part of the cooperative agreement, the organizations will solicit input from industry, universities, government agencies and other relevant stakeholders. 

Based in Emeryville, California, EBRC is a nonprofit public-private partnership dedicated to bringing together an inclusive community committed to advancing engineering biology to address national and global needs.