In an age where the power of supercomputers and the code behind the curtains of software are continually increasing in power, the implications of such advances extend beyond cold circuitry. DNA, the instructions behind life as we know it, determines the makeup of our cells, allowing for proper function or, if a mutation is present, causing disease. Synthesizing synthetic genes allows for the creation of specific proteins for drug development, biotechnology or research.
This technology is becoming increasingly more accessible; over the last decade, the cost of building a pair of DNA bases has decreased from about one dollar to less than a dime. According to Patrick Boyle, Head of Codebase at Gingko Bioworks, a company that provides designed DNA to other parties, “We’re coming up with thousands of new designs on a computer, printing out the DNA for them, booting up that DNA, seeing what it does and then iterating on those designs.” With this power comes the potential for many useful products such as enzymes and food products, but with increasing ease comes increasing concern that, in the wrong hands, DNA could be weaponized.
While DNA development companies all engage to some extent in a customer screening process, if someone was able to bypass this process and synthesize DNA that causes disease in a host cell, this code could be placed in viruses and cause a potentially global pandemic.
Biowarfare is not a new concept. In the 1700s, British colonialists gave blankets that were contaminated by smallpox patients to Native Americans. This caused an epidemic that killed more than 50% of implicated tribes.
Most DNA development companies are part of an international consortium where members vow to follow or exceed security guidelines created by the U.S. government. However, not all of these industries are part of the consortium and do not follow such strict screening.
In addition, the standing guidelines issued by the government are out of date considering new technological advances. For example, the government calls for screening big portions of DNA, but it has become easier to synthesize little sequences of DNA and put them together into a larger, potentially lethal gene. According to James Diggans, Twist Bioscience’s director of biosecurity, guidelines for smaller pieces of DNA is “an easy next step that the U.S. government could take.”
Indeed, the government not only could but desperately should take these measures. According to scientists, it has already been proven possible to construct viruses such as Ebola and polio. If all companies are not rigorous about screening their customers, it is only a matter of time until one of these viruses is synthesized, with devastating consequences.
It is also vital that all companies be mandated to follow rigorous screening practices. One method of doing this is to pass a law that forces all biotechnology companies to follow a standardized set of guidelines. However, at least in America’s capitalistic society, another potentially more feasible option is to force all research receiving government funding to get their DNA from a company that meets or exceeds a certain set of guidelines. This will put economic pressure on all biotechnology companies to follow these guidelines and thus not lose customers.
Realistically, it is impossible to eliminate the risk of bioterrorism in today’s modern society. DNA synthesis technology is available globally; even if the U.S. adopts stricter guidelines, other countries may continue to follow riskier practices. However, considering the enormity of the potential consequences, it is important that we do everything we can to minimize the chances of bioterrorist attacks and thoroughly screen organizations or labs attempting to order custom-made DNA. We cannot assume that DNA sourcing companies will follow these guidelines on their own. The cost of diligently reviewing customers is great, and in order to force companies to continue putting in such effort and funds, we must make the cost of ceasing these measures greater. For all of us, the stakes are high enough.
Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at email@example.com.