New Scientist (pg. 5)
November 12, 2005


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

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.