By the mid-2000s, many suppliers of synthetic DNA in the United States and Europe had begun to screen sequence orders voluntarily, but the methodology varied from company to company, and a few firms resisted screening entirely.\n Anticipating future developments The current existence of three competing screening standards is an unstable situation, leading some observers to worry that the biosecurity regime will devolve to the lowest common denominator. Because the draft U.S. government guidelines are widely considered inadequate, however, they are likely to be revised, perhaps by incorporating strategies such as Best Match-plus.
J O N AT H A N B. T U C K E R Double-Edged DNA Preventing the Misuse of Gene Synthesis Fostering industry self-regulation, backed up with targeted government policies, is the best way to capture the benefits and reduce the risks of synthetic genomics. D uring the past decade, a global indus- Already, the ability to synthesize long strands of DNA try has emerged based on synthetic and stitch them together into a genome, the blueprint of an genomics: the use of automated ma- organism, has enabled scientists to recreate infectious viruses chines to construct genes and other from scratch in the laboratory. This feat was accomplished long strands of DNA by stringing to- for poliovirus in 2002, the Spanish influenza virus in 2005, gether chemical building blocks called and the SARS virus in 2008. Some analysts worry that it will nucleotides in any desired sequence. soon become technically feasible to synthesize the small- Some 50 companies—concentrated primarily in the United pox virus, a deadly scourge that was eradicated from nature States, Germany, and China—synthesize gene-length seg- in the late 1970s and currently exists only in a few highly ments of double-stranded DNA to order. Scientists in gov- secure repositories. ernment, university, and pharmaceutical laboratories world- It is critical, then, to devise effective governance meas- wide use these products to study fundamental cellular ures for synthetic genomics that permit the beneficial use of processes and to develop new vaccines and medicines, among this powerful technology while minimizing, if not eliminat- other beneficial applications. But synthetic genomics pres- ing, the risks. Some analysts contend that the best approach ents a dual-use dilemma in that outlaw states or terrorist is to have governments impose top-down, legally binding groups could potentially exploit synthetic DNA for harmful controls. Yet formal government regulations have a number purposes. Of the biotechnologies that entail dual-use risks, of drawbacks. Not only are regulations time-consuming and gene synthesis has elicited the greatest concern because of its cumbersome to develop and promulgate, but they are static maturity, availability, and potential consequences. and hard to modify in response to rapid technological change. SPRING 2010 23 TRACY HICKS, Detail of Hurricane Ike study for Trouble in Paradise exhibit at Tucson Museum of Art, 2009. 24 ISSUES IN SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY G E N E S YN T H E S I S A better approach is to adopt a form of “soft” governance based on voluntary guidelines or industry best practices. This type of self-regulation, involving suppliers and per- haps consumers of synthetic DNA, can be reinforced by government policies that encourage responsible behavior. Although biosecurity measures for the gene-synthesis in- dustry are being implemented in the United States and else- where, these activities are not well coordinated, and con- tinued efforts will be needed on a national and international basis to fashion an effective global regime.
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