The advent of benchtop machines capable of printing DNA sequences from online data banks is causing a stir among biosecurity specialists.
The non-profit Washington D.C. think tank Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) released a report detailing its concerns regarding the technology and proposed strategies for mitigating its risks. It believes that the current, voluntary screening system for these machines is insufficient to protect the country and the world from bioterrorism.
What’s the Big Risk?
Biologists have been able to synthesize DNA for about 40 years and this ability has been incredibly important in a wide variety of industries and sciences. It is used to develop new medicines, improve agricultural products and much more.
The DNA synthesis process has improved tremendously since it was first possible. There are a multitude of companies that can synthesize DNA for a fee, which is becoming cheaper and cheaper every year.
An efficient and (relatively) affordable DNA printing machine would represent a significant advancement in the technology. It could also increase the risk of bioterrorism. The NTI believes that the current regulatory framework for DNA synthesis is woefully insufficient already.
Many DNA synthesis companies have important safeguards in place to make sure that its customers are creating bioweapons. However, the US government does not yet force them to vet customers or screen the requested DNA sequences.
Furthermore, the NTI worries that as DNA synthesis techniques improve and become easier and cheaper, terrorists could create another horrific global pandemic with relative ease. hat’s why the NTI is advocating for the government to establish strict guidelines on DNA synthesis to prevent such a scenario.
DNA synthesis techniques are improving all the time, allowing for longer and more complex sequences. Right now it can’t entirely synthesize DNA long enough to create a deadly virus from scratch but bad actors don’t need it to.
Theoretically, it likely wouldn’t be difficult for a terrorist group with biology experts to insert a smaller synthesized piece of DNA into a common virus or bacteria to make it exponentially more transmissible and deadly.
As DNA synthesis techniques improve and become more affordable, the risk of such a scenario only escalates. The larger strands bad actors can produce, the easier it would be to splice them together to create a deadly pathogen.
The NTI, along with other experts, believe that the issue of DNA synthesis regulation is as critical as nuclear nonproliferation. They urge the US government to establish necessary screening and vetting guidelines before the technology advances further.
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