Science Questions

Could synthetic biology be used for nefarious purposes?

Sun, 16th May 2010

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Question

Paradox Obers (Second Life) asked:

Could synthetic biology be used for nefarious purposes?

Answer

We put this question to Dr Jim Haseloff, from Cambridge University:

Jim -  Well I think, like with many technologies, there are different applications and certainly, as one can see with existing concerns about terrorist activity and other potential dangers, people are very concerned about the misuse of technologies.  For example, recently the field has highlighted the fact that these synthetic biology technologies can produce different types of, and more extreme, risks which need to be guarded against,

Chris -   I remember about seven years ago, someone decided to reassemble the genome of a polio virus using bits of genetic material they bought on the internet to prove that this was a genuine possibility that could be done.  I suppose, taking that a step further, you could do some fairly nasty things, given how easy it is to do some of this stuff these days.

Jim -   Yes.  In fact, DNA synthesis has been identified as one of the main potential dangers - that people can reconstruct elements which might be pathogenic for example.  Recently, there’s been an agreement, an international agreement among the major DNA synthesis companies.  So every sequence that are submitted for synthesis is now vetted.  So it would be – I wouldn’t say impossible, but probably very difficult to deliberately engineer a new DNA sequence for pathogen at this point.

Chris -   But if you made those sequences really short, they're not going to know, are they? If you ordered them from lots of different companies and got lots of little bits to stitch them altogether.  It would take you a long time but these people are dedicated.  They want to do what they want to do and if they want to bypass the system, they're going to find a way of doing it.

Jim -   Well I think the size of DNA elements that is unique is very small and it would be essentially impractical to make any large scale, even the smallest virus would be extremely difficult to construct that way.

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