Synthetic genome raises biosecurity concerns

Since the announcement in May that researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland had successfully managed to create a cell controlled entirely by a synthetically-produced genome, concerns have been raised that this latest feat of biological science could in time be harnessed for the development of biological weapons.

Dr Venter and his team, who previously created the first ever synthetic genome in 2008, successfully transplanted a synthetically-produced genome (Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0) into a recipient microbial relative, which subsequently demonstrated replication and protein production according to the synthetic, implanted genome. This development represents an historical step towards creating the first fully synthetic organism which could be designed to fulfill a specific purpose, for either good or ill.

Concerned about the potential misuse of such technology, President Obama called almost immediately on the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, an advisory panel established by the president last November, to ‘undertake, as its first order of business, a study of the implications of this scientific milestone, as well as other advances that may lie ahead in this field of research.’

Opinion is split, however. According to the Washington Post, the ‘early consensus’ is that the achievement ‘poses no hazards beyond those that exist with current modes of moving or tweaking genes.’ But given the rapid pace of modern-day scientific advances, and the rapid diffusion of technology and expertise between laboratories and across borders, the use or abuse of advances in genetic engineering in the coming years is almost impossible to predict.

Indeed, as was raised in January at a forum on ‘Minimising the Risks of Synthetic DNA’ organised by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, engineering life presents opportunities to create existing, augmented and/or novel pathogens. Since current restrictions on select agent pathogens, such as smallpox, are based on the physical safeguarding of live stocks, with the application of modern gene synthesis technology a would-be attacker could potentially obtain a complete pathogen genome by ordering it from providers of commercial DNA.

David Cliff and Hugh Chalmers, London