; Double-Edged DNA: Preventing the Misuse of Gene Synthesis
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Double-Edged DNA: Preventing the Misuse of Gene Synthesis

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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.

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									                                                                  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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