NTI Presentation- Biosecurity by Design: Getting Ahead of Risk in the World of Designer Operations

By GMU Biodefense graduate student Carlos Alvarado

On Wednesday June 13, 2018, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) hosted Dr. Reshma Shetty of Ginkgo Bioworks for a presentation on getting ahead of risk in the world of designer organisms. The presentation started off with remarks from NTI CEO Ernest J. Moniz announcing the new logo for NTI:Bio. He explained how NTI’s focus was on nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction however, with rapid advances in science technology NTI created a Global Biological Policy and Programs Unit. NTI:Bio’s focus is to continue to find ways to reduce threats from risks posed by advances in biotechnology. He then concluded with introducing Dr. Reshma Shetty and how her company Ginkgo Bioworks could provide insight of how these advances in biotechnology could support the future structure of biosecurity.

Dr. Shetty started the presentation with a quick statement on what Ginkgo Bioworks is, which is a novel synthetic biology company that designs organisms with the goal of replacing technology with biology. She explained how technology and biology are very similar in the fact they’re both made form unique core codes. One of the slides within her presentation contained a photo of a desk with a plant, cell phone, tablet, computer, and other technological devices. She then asked the audience what is the most technological item in this picture,  to which she stated the answer was the plant because the plant was self-replicating, self-cleaning, and self-sensing. She explained that with bio synthesis and bioengineering Ginkgo Bioworks is working on developing these codes for specific bio synthesized organisms.

Dr. Shetty then discussed how biotechnology is growing at the same rate as technology, underscoring how quickly biotech is growing from an article showing Gingko Bioworks in top growing companies surrounded by tech companies such as Uber, Lyft, and Apple. As technology increases Ginkgo Bioworks is able to reduce costs and research bio synthesis of more complex organisms however, this does create a security issue which is that if bio synthesis is low cost could this create a biosecurity concern. Dr. Shetty’s presentation addressed this concern with the statement – “We waited until we were resilient on computers to focus on cybersecurity issues” however there is an opportunity to build on biosecurity before reliant on biology.

Dr. Shetty explained how Ginkgo Bioworks understanding of bio synthesis may increase the “envelope of feasible threats…but so does the envelope of feasible bio countermeasures”. She mentioned the best biosecurity measure means “being the best at engineering biology”. This quote was explained in the fact that if Ginkgo Bioworks has a large database of sequences, which could be used to identify if a threat is a natural occurring or engineered threat. The more intriguing aspect that Ginkgo Bioworks is addressing is that the application of biology to security go beyond biosecurity. This notion was supported with a comment regarding the joint cooperation between Ginkgo Bioworks and Bayer, a global enterprise with competencies in the Life Sciences fields of health care and agriculture. The cooperation, Joyn Bio, aims to provide farmers with engineered microbes that provide cereal crops with their nitrogen needs, thus reducing the effect manufacturing fertilizer has on the environment.

The presentation concluded with the reiteration that the applications of biology can do more than the scope of just biosecurity. Dr. Shetty then held a portion of time for questions. The room generally had questions concerning how implications of bio synthesis internationally could lead to more security concerns. Dr. Shetty stated how internationally there is collaboration on furthering bio synthesis but with an emphasis of safe practices and regulations.

The full presentation will be posted to the NTI.org.

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