Rapid growth of the synthetic biology field could outpace government restrictions needed to secure the biological warfare materials, experts said at a conference.
Synthetic pathogens are man-made infectious agents created either from making or adapting DNA, cells and other biological structures.
While scientists have been tweaking genetic sequences for decades, recent breakthroughs such as the production from scratch of cells that do not exist in nature have some security experts worried terrorists could exploit the technology to create or redesign biological weapons.
“The intentionally malicious use of it is something that is of concern,” said New America Foundation fellow Robert Wright, who moderated a panel on the issue. “It’s very hard to regulate at the national level.”
The direct modification of genetic structures can open doors for significant advances in the fields of medicine, agriculture and energy.
Work begins with the gene synthesis firms. After receiving a purchase order for a specific genetic structure, the sequence companies fabricate the short building blocks of DNA called “oligonucleotides.” Researchers then assemble these “oligos” into a full gene, which then goes onto a plasmid. They then inject the plasmid into a bacterium. Lastly, researchers then grow genes and withdraw them from the cloned bacteria.
Experts at the conference co-sponsored by Google and the New America Foundation said there is a need for the government to continually track developments in synthetic biology so it can create an implement the appropriate security.
“The cost of sequencing [DNA] is coming way, way down. The speed of sequencing is going way, way up, which means that the manufacturing of synthetic life … will be doable not just by big corporations but ultimately … and by ultimately I mean before the end of this century, by individuals,” said panel speaker and Canadian award-winning science fiction author Robert Sawyer.
The decreasing cost of synthetic biology technology coupled with its increasing ease of use also means more people are capable of creating and altering genetic structures. This poses another biodefense issue should criminals or terrorists seek to produce and enhance their own man-made pathogens, potentially even making them deadlier and more contagious than existing viruses and bacteria.