BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA--Amid growing concerns that technological advances are making it easier to manufacture potential bioweapons, synthetic biologists meeting here this week began hammering out a "community declaration" to promote security and safety in their nascent field. Atop the field's early focus: ensuring that companies that synthesize DNA strands for customers screen genetic sequences to ensure they are not sending out the makings of a potential bioweapon.
Unlike conventional recombinant DNA technology, in which researchers tend to manipulate individual genes and proteins, synthetic biologists are increasingly able to alter large swaths of genomes at once and assemble new ones from scratch. Synthesizing complete organisms, even potentially dangerous ones, is already a reality. In 2002, a research team recreated the poliovirus by stitching together DNA ordered from companies (ScienceNOW, 11 July 2002). And last year, another group recreated the pandemic flu strain that killed tens of millions of people worldwide in 1918 (ScienceNOW, 5 October 2005). Such studies have raised a host of concerns, including bioterrorism and ecological contamination.
To begin addressing these issues, researchers at the Synthetic Biology 2.0 meeting here over the weekend took baby steps toward self-regulation, suggesting but not voting on a pair of recommendations. One targets the growing number of companies around the world that can synthesize stretches of DNA tens of thousands of bases long. That puts them within range of recreating viruses in one fell swoop, though it's still considerably below the 4-million-or-so-base length of a bacterial genome. Given such skills, DNA synthesis companies should monitor commercial orders and report suspicious sequences to government agencies, says one recommendation expected to be adopted this week. A second is expected to call for the development of software programs that spot efforts to evade the scans, such as modifying suspect strands with extra DNA that could later be clipped off. (At press time, the complete list of declarations was still being worked out and was expected to be available for comment at http://pbd.lbl.gov/sbconf/ for 1 week before the final language is adopted.)
"It's a good thing to start with," says Harvey Rubin, an infectious-disease specialist and biosecurity expert at the University of Pennsylvania. Down the road, researchers could also consider other proposals including affirming members' duty to report dangerous behavior, establishing a confidential hotline from which researchers could seek advice from experts before proceeding with experiments about which they may be uneasy, and establishing a clearinghouse for community members to identify and track potential biosafety and biosecurity concerns.