21 December 2009
Appeared in BioNews 539There is a risk that advances in synthetic biology and low-cost DNA sequencing and synthesis could lead to the misuse of genetic technologies for bioterrorism purposes, where sequences of DNA could be ordered from a commercial gene synthesis provider and genetically engineered into a biological warfare agent.
In response to these concerns, the International Association of Synthetic Biology (IASB) has published the first Code of Conduct for Best Practice in Gene Synthesis, which outlines current best practice in synthetic biology to companies, academic and public institutions involved in gene synthesis. The guidance is based on biosecurity and biosafety procedures already implemented in many companies, and the IASB has now integrated these into a Code of Conduct that it hopes will be adopted industry-wide. 'The next thing we will do is to reach out to everyone in the industry with this standard and invite them to join it,' said Stephen Maurer, Associate Professor in public policy and expert for homeland security at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Code of Conduct has been undersigned by ATG Biosythetics, Biomax Informatics AG, Entelechon, Febit Synbio, PolyQuant, Shanghai Generay Biotech, Sloning Biotechnology, and has received support from AstraZeneca and CRAIC Computing. The IASB hope to develop a certificate to award to organizations that are committed and adhering to the Code.
'Sythetic biology offers a vast potential, both economically and in terms of societal benefits,' said Markus Fischer from Entelechon. 'This code will help to leverage this potential in a safe and responsible way. Once the field matures, the code will likely be complemented by appropriate legislation.'
Under the new code, gene synthesis providers will be required to screen the genetic sequences ordered by customers against a database of known pathogenicity or virulence factors that could be intentionally abused. They will also be required to screen their clients to determine their legitimacy as a registered business or internationally-recognised academic institution, and restrict access to synthetic genetic material to legitimate users. The Code of Conduct also recommends that companies keep records of orders and clients for a minimum of eight years, and provides guidance on assisting in law enforcement.
The IASB now plans to form a technical expert group on biosecurity, in collaboration with the University of California's Goldman School of Public Policy (VIREP), and develop a database on virulence factors. It hopes the database will be used by industry to share information on the molecular biology of pathenogenicity, and to exchange data on screening decisions.
The IASB is a consortium of biotechnology companies and was created to work with governments and stakeholders to develop best practice in the field of synthetic biology. The consortium is concerned developing a safe, secure and ethical regulatory environment that will enable the scientific and economic potential of synthetic biology to be achieved.