Gene synthesis companies establish measures to counter bioterrorism

Published 20 November 2009

The five largest synthetic DNA companies will establish common security measures to prevent the use of synthetic DNA by bioterrorists; among other things, the “Harmonized Screening Protocol” will screen gene sequences against a regulated pathogen database

The five largest suppliers of synthetic DNA will establish common measures to prevent misuse of synthetically produced DNA by bioterorrists or criminals. Blue Heron Biotechnology, DNA2.0, GENEART, GenScript, and Integrated DNA Technologies, which together represent an 80 percent share of the synthetic DNA market, announced the establishment of a common screening protocol that will be applied to every single synthetic gene order. “We are proud to announce the formation of the International Gene Synthesis Consortium”, said John Mulligan, CSO of Blue Heron Biotechnology.

The IGSC’s “Harmonized Screening Protocol” comprises the screening of gene sequences against a regulated pathogen database developed by the consortium and one or more of the internationally coordinated sequence reference databanks, such as NCBI/GenBank, EBI/EMBL, or DDBJ. Amino acid sequences of possible translation products for each ordered synthetic gene will also be screened. Purchasers of synthetic genes will also be screened in accordance with national guidelines.

Furthermore, the IGSC companies have agreed to keep all screening, customer, and order records for at least eight years. IGSC companies have also reserved the right to refuse to fill any order, and to notify authorities upon identification of potentially problematic orders, and will coordinate efforts with local and national law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Finally, the five companies will comply with all applicable laws and regulations governing the synthesis, possession, transportation, export and import of gene synthesis and related products.

The development of the promising field of synthetic biology could be hampered — especially in Europe — by negative public perception, according to experts. “While 51 percent of all reports about Synbio in U.S. newspapers are positive, in the EU only 28 percent are positive,” said Dr. Elenore Pauwels from U.S.-based Synbio Project. According to U.S. ethicist, most people are concerned that bioterrorists or states could misuse synthetic DNA sequences to make a novel bioweapon from scratch. The growing field provides a variety of biotech applications, such as the construction of microorganisms with specific desirable properties.