New Scientist (pg. 5) November 12, 2005 EDITORIAL: GENES FOR SALE So far, Al-Qaida and other major terrorist groups have spread their message with nothing more subtle than high explosives and hijacked aircraft. Let us hope that tomorrow's terrorists don't include people with PhDs in molecular genetics, because a New Scientist investigation has revealed that they might not find it hard to take their murderous campaigns to a frightening new level. Our investigation shows how many companies that synthesise genes to order are performing few checks on what they are making or who their customers are (see page 8). If one of these firms were to inadvertently supply terrorists with genes that, say, underpin the virulence of the smallpox virus, a skilled geneticist might be able to splice them into a related virus and create a formidable weapon. Given the potential risks, any responsible gene-synthesis company ought to check the orders it receives. US regulations designed to beef up security surrounding "select agents" should in theory prevent any US-based firm supplying sequences such as those needed for making smallpox. Notes on those rules, published by the federal government, say it is "incumbent on the entities that manufacture substances to know what they are manufacturing". But some gene-synthesis companies are not heeding that message, and if a firm fails to check the genes it produces against a list of dangerous sequences, it cannot be certain that it is operating within the law. Tighter regulation might help, and Germany provides a possible model. Under its strict controls, German companies are obliged to report to the authorities all sequences they manufacture. Elsewhere, some leading gene-synthesis companies say they would welcome rules that would require them to screen orders for potentially dangerous sequences, including a list that should not be made without explicit government permission. But national regulations are only of limited value. The underlying technology has already proliferated worldwide, and some gene-synthesis companies that are ostensibly based in the west are thought to manufacture their DNA in China and other countries in the Far East where skilled labour is cheap. In some cases, it is difficult to verify where the work is being done. The Canadian company Bio Basic, for instance, told New Scientist that it passes on orders to other firms, but declined to identify their names or locations. Despite the potentially horrific consequences if terrorists successfully exploit a security loophole, a draconian clampdown on gene synthesis could do more harm than good. Synthetic genes are used in a variety of research projects, many of which are intended to enhance human health or even protect against bioterrorist attacks. DNA-synthesis technology also underpins the exciting new field of "synthetic biology", an extreme form of genetic engineering that aims to recode living systems in radical ways. Some of its practitioners think more like electronics engineers than biologists, and are trying to devise a set of basic "components" built from synthetic DNA that could be spliced into bacteria to build biological machines. Gene synthesis and synthetic biology have enormous potential for good. Last year, for instance, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a jaw-dropping $42.6 million to Jay Keasling of the University of California, Berkeley, who is using synthetic DNA to make the powerful anti-malarial drug artemisinin. His plan is to transfer the entire biosynthetic pathway that allows the Chinese shrub Artemesia annua to make artemisinin into the bacterium Escherichia coli. If Keasling succeeds -- and there's every chance that he will -- his sortie into synthetic biology could slash the drug's cost and save millions of lives. If ever there was a case for scientists around the world to engage in sensible self-regulation before a nightmare becomes reality, this is it. It is time to follow the example of researchers such as Drew Endy, one of the pioneers of synthetic biology, whose group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will only do business with companies that operate transparent procedures for screening gene- synthesis orders for potential bioweapons. If other researchers follow suit, rather than simply placing orders on the basis of cost or speed of delivery, the whole industry would be forced into adopting tougher standards. And that would make our world a little bit safer.