Friday, October 19, 2007

Guarding against the misuse of synthetic genomics

Synthetic genomics research involves using chemically created pieces of DNA known as oligonucleotides to design and assemble parts of, or complete chromosomes and genes.

In theory, these can then be used to generate new 'lifeforms' that can produce new biological drugs or biologically produced green fuels, which are impractical to engineer using more conventional biotechnology approaches.

However, as with any new technology that has the ability to be used for good comes the possibility that it can be subverted for evil means such as bioterrorism.

The 66 page report, entitled "Synthetic Genomics: Options for Governance", is a result of a 20 month examination of the field and has highlighted areas three key areas for policy intervention to ensure that this promising technology cannot be misused.

The need for such a review has accelerated over the last 5 years or so as the speed at which genetic constructs can be developed has increased dramatically, as has the number of companies that have the ability to develop them -this in turn has led to prices dropping rapidly.

"Designing ways to impede malicious uses of the technology while at the same time not impeding, or even promoting beneficial ones, poses a number of policy challenges for all who wish to use or benefit from synthetic genomics" said Michele Garfinkel, policy analyst at the J Craig Venter Institute and lead author of the report.

The first area involves those companies that supply synthetic DNA, oligonucleotides, genes or genomes and how they can ensure that they can trust that the researchers they are shipping their goods to are 'legitimate' users and not potential terrorists. In addition, the report recommends that these firms should collect customer details and information about their orders.

Some companies are already going beyond these recommendations of their own volition.

According to Dr Michael Dyson, Codon Devices' European managing director; every sequence they are asked to synthesise is checked against a database of high-risk sequences that could be used for nefarious means.

If a sequence is flagged up then the manufacture is stopped and discussions with the purchaser are initiated to find out exactly what the sequence is and what it will be used for.

The second area covers recommendations to control and/or monitor the use of DNA synthesisers, such that owners would have to be licensed and register the instruments as well as needing a license to buy reagents and services.

The third area involves the compilation of a manual for "biosafety in synthetic biology laboratories" as well establishing a recognised clearing house for best practice.

The review also calls for the broadening of the US Institutional Biosafety Committee's (IBC) review responsibilities to consider risky experiments as well as enhancing the enforcement of compliance with US National Institutes of Health (NIH) biosafety guidelines.

While these suggestions may appear to some to be somewhat draconian and could hinder honest research into beneficial systems, the committee was keen to stress that all the recommendations were designed to impose the minimum burden on researchers, industry and government.

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