Delving Deeper: Synthetic Biology and National Security Policy

By Yong-Bee Lim

Synthetic Biology and National Security Policy: Balancing Risk and Innovation to Address the Dual-use Dilemma

Mankind’s knowledge of technology, and the building blocks of life, has rushed forward in leaps and bounds over the past 50 years. Using various techniques and databases stored with genome data, analyses are now available to health practitioners and researchers to, among other things:

  1. Spot differences between virulent (capable of causing a disease) and avirulent (incapable of causing disease) strains of a pathogen
  2. Apply epidemiological information to estimate mortality/morbidity rates of pathogens
  3. Help create innovative new preventative and prophylactic measures to deal with pathogens ranging from naturally-occurring diseases to potential biological weapons

One new biological technology that has roused interest in the science and security fields is called synthetic biology (synbio). This multi-disciplinary science (which combines elements of scientific and engineering fields) seeks to create new biological systems, or recreate older systems with novel/ enhanced characteristics by using chemically-synthesized DNA as building blocks; in essence, this is a field that seeks to build living things (biology) from the ground up (engineering).

Although synbio has only been around for a decade, it potentially offers tremendous benefits for the world, including:

  1. Diminishing World Hunger: Scientists are looking to develop plants that produce more food per harvest by findings ways to increase photosynthesis (the ability of plants to convert sunlight and nutrients into energy).
  2. Producing Energy without Fossil Fuels: Synbio scientists are researching ways to use types of algae to secrete biodiesel and other fuels.
  3. Cleaning Environmental Damage: While microbes are already used at oil spill sites to clean up petroleum, synbio scientists are looking for ways to help these microbes do a faster job.
  4. Promoting Health: Synbio scientists are finding novel ways to approach issues with drug and treatment development. Synbio has actually been used to artificially engineer the rare chemical precursor to the antimalarial drug artemisinin, which has allowed larger quantities of artemisinin to be produced than ever before.

While synthetic biology comes with many potential benefits, it also comes with a number of risks. Like many technologies, synbio suffers from the “dual use dilemma” – a phrase that refers to how scientific procedures, materials, and knowledge may be used for both beneficial and harmful purposes. The same synbio technology that produces better medicines and environmental cleaning mechanisms may also contribute to the intentional modification of an existing disease or the creation of a novel, highly pathogenic biological agent by states or terrorist organizations.

Gaps and concerns in policies have already been highlighted in regards to synbio. In 2006, journalists from The Guardian were able to order a segment of the smallpox genome from a DNA synthesis company without offering any legitimate reason for the purchase. In 2010, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) noted that the interdisciplinary nature of synbio may mean that practitioners are not biologists that are aligned with a university or institutional setting; therefore, individual practitioners of synbio such as engineering, materials sciences, or chemistry may not follow commonly accepted principles and practices of biological risk assessment and biocontainment. The fact that synbio has been used to recreate the Spanish Flu of 1918, as well as the SARS virus for research purposes highlights the potential danger of this technology in the wrong hands.

So what should be done about synthetic biology? It is clear that the potentials for misuse of synthetic biology constitute both a national threat. However, the potentials for positive good to come from synbio highlights a need to balance security with innovation in policy. While this is not a comprehensive list, U.S. policymakers should focus on addressing the following issues related to synbio:

  1. Dealing with access to genomic data: Synbio is a field that is primarily driven by genomic knowledge and information. The first step in recreating/producing a particular pathogen involves knowing the genomic code of a particular pathogen. Crafting policies that balance the restriction of this information while providing access to researchers is a key to foster both security and innovation.
  2. Dealing with regulatory policies related to the ordering of synthetic biology materials and products: Currently, places that receive federal funding must follow certain reporting requirements to the type and purpose of their research (including why they would purchase particular materials and products). Furthermore, HHS adopted codes of conduct that issued some customer and screening guidelines for the sale of synthetic genes in 2010. While this has proven successful so far, future policies that are crafted must continue to balance the restriction of the materials and products while providing access to researchers to foster both security and innovation.
  3. Enhancing and expanding good laboratory practices (including ethical training) for all practitioners of synbio: Raising awareness and good practices for practitioners of synbio would help contribute to a culture of responsible conduct of research that mitigates the risks of synbio misuse.
  4. Increasing funding and resources for biosurveillance and response capabilities: While preventative measures would be all that is necessary in an ideal world, mitigating the effects of the misuse of synbio is a necessity in modern times. Resources should be poured into state and federal entities (such as the CDC and the USDA) to both enhance epidemiological surveillance capabilities, as well as enhance response capabilities in the event of a biological incident.

Yong-Bee Lim is a PhD student in Biodefense at George Mason University. He holds a B.S. in Psychology and an M.S. in Biodefense from George Mason University as well. Contact him at or on Twitter @yblim3.

(image: Martin Hieslmair/Ars Electronica/Flickr)

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