Synthetic Biology

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Status Brief

Developmental Milestones/Developments to Date:

Current Assessment/State of the Field:




Forden, Geoffrey, “How the World’s Most Underdeveloped Nations Get the World’s Most Dangerous Weapons,” Technology and Culture, 2007, pp. 92-103.

  1. “Iraqi biological weapons administrative infrastructure relied on its own mytoxin experts, who encouraged first research and then production.”
  2. “According to the Iraq Survey Group’s ”Comprehensive Report”, the Iraqis began research on the powerful nerve agent VX in 1985 with a literature search for published work on its synthesis and production.”
  3. “In 1975, the Sunday Times of London revealed that the British patent office had, a number of years earlier, approved and published the formula and method of synthesis for a whole family of organophosphate chemicals, including VX.”
  4. “A machinist can just as easily learn to operate a flow-forming machine by making a tuba horn as a rocket nuzzle; a technician can learn to control a fermenter to brew a vaccine as well as a pathogen; producing a nerve agent is not so different from producing a pesticide. As such beneficial knowledge spreads–and no one would deny a developing country the right to produce vaccines or refine its own agricultural chemicals–it will become that much easier for proliferators to find the necessary population of skilled workers already within the country.”
  5. “We still need our supply-side-oriented nonproliferation regimes to try to prevent crucial technologies from being shipped to countries that might abuse them.”

Tacit Knowledge, A.Q. Khan, Dual Use, Bioterrorism, WMD, Open Science, Vaccination, Synthetic Biology


Collett Marc S. “Impact of Synthetic Genomics on the Threat of Bioterrorism with Viral Agents. In: Working Papers for Synthetic Genomics: Risks and Benefits for Science and Society,” pp. 83-103. Garfinkel MS, Endy D, Epstein GL, Friedman RM, editors. 2007.

  1. “From a bioterrorism perspective, viruses isolated from nature are a sure bet. Their virulence and transmissibility are known. Their effect and impact can be predicted or calculated. Viruses isolated directly from diseased hosts (called “primary isolates”) demonstrate clearly the consequences of their infection. Additionally, the virus’s ability to survive, persist and spread in the environment and among susceptible hosts is generally known. Finally, pathogenic viruses isolated from diseased hosts are typically “hot” viruses; that is, primary isolates of pathogenic viruses tend to cause severe disease in their host.” P87
  2. “Most viral genome sequences deposited in databases are derived from laboratory-passaged viruses. While many sequences may be derived from low-passage viruses, and are therefore more likely to be close to their primary isolates, in some cases the passage history of the virus from which the sequence was derived is unclear, as are the biological attributes associated with that virus. Thus, there can in some cases be uncertainty regarding the biological attributes of a synthetic replica of a gene bank virus sequence.” P88
  3. “[S]ynthetic genomics technology could provide the means for the re-creation of variola virus, and therefore could affect the availability of this agent for malevolent use. Due to the large size of the poxvirus genome, however, it would be anticipated that well-established poxvirus recombination techniques would play a significant supportive or alternative role in producing an entire poxvirus genome.” p 91
  4. “Smaller genome segments of a sequence derived from variola virus may be readily incorporated into a “base” monkeypox virus, resulting in chimeric orthopoxviruses with unknown and unpredictable biological characteristics.” p 91
  5. “Because of their virulence, filoviruses are handled in high containment laboratory facilities to prevent virus release into the environment, and also to protect those working with these highly pathogenic viruses. Consequently, the number of labs in possession of these viruses is limited, as is access to these labs. However, during outbreaks, unsecured local hospitals and medical field teams collect, hold and transport numerous infectious patient specimens. Additionally, there may be covert stores of virus outside known containment laboratories. Hemorrhagic fever viruses were the subject of biowarfare research in the former Soviet Union, where weaponized Marburg virus was produced and research on Ebola was conducted. Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union and these programs, the disposition of laboratory biological materials was not tracked.” pp 92-93
  6. “While [Australian workers] trying to improve their experimental mouse contraceptive vaccine, they engineered the expression of cytokine IL-4 from ectromelia virus, hoping that infection with this recombinant poxvirus would enhance antibody production by their vaccine. It instead resulted in severe suppression of cellular immune responses in the mice, uncontrolled virus replication, and animal death. Even mice previously immunized against normal ectromelia virus 16 or treated with the antiviral drug cidofovir17 were unable to survive ectromelia-IL-4 virus challenge.” p 95

Synthetic Biology, Bioterrorism, Smallpox, Vaccination, Ebola


Pollack, AndrewResearchers Announce a Step Toward Synthetic Life,New York Times, A15, January 25, 2008

  1. Open science manufactured the entire genome of a bacterium by stitching together its chemical components
  2. ”genetic engineering is following the path of computer chips, with capability rising rapidly and costs – now about $1 per base – falling swiftly.”
  3. Some activist groups say that Dr. Venter is going too far, too fast, this time, and that synthetic biology needs outside regulation to prevent the introduction of dangerous organisms, created by evil intent or by innocent error.”
  4. The team also added some DNA segments to serve as “watermarks,” allowing scientists to distinguish the synthetic genome from the natural one.

Open Science, Synthetic Biology


Czar, Michael J., et al., “Gene synthesis demystified,” Trends in Biotechnology, Volume 27, Issue 2, February 2009, Pages 63-72

  1. “DNA fabrication of genetic cassettes at base-level precision is transforming genetic engineering from a laborious art to an information-driven discipline. Although substantial advances have been made in the development of DNA fabrication, the methods employed vary widely based on the length of the DNA. All of these methods are available commercially, but can also be performed at the molecular biology bench using typical reagents and procedures. Because the technology is not mature and is still evolving rapidly, it is helpful to gain some understanding of the different steps in this process and the associated technical challenges to successfully take advantage of DNA fabrication in a research project.”

Open Science, Synthetic Biology


Kelle, Alexander, “Ensuring the security of synthetic biology—towards a 5P governance strategySyst Synth Biol (2009) 3:85–90

  1. “The 2008 ISU background paper states that a ‘common example of conflict arises with the transport of dangerous pathogens: in the interests of biosafety, such pathogens should be clearly labelled during transport, but from a biosecurity perspective, labelling the pathogen being shipped may increase the risk of theft or diversion.’” p 85
  2. “[T]he Committee on Advances in Technology and the Prevention of their Application to Next Generation Bioterrorism and Biological Warfare Threats, the so-called Lemon-Relman committee of the US National Research Council (National Research Council 2006) has urged analysts and policy makers to look beyond lists of potentially harmful biological agents, like those for example on the US select agents list. Rejecting a list-based approach as too limited, the Committee adopted a classification scheme for scientific and technological advances containing four different groups, focussing on features that different technologies have in common. Synthetic biology features in relation to two of these four groups: ‘‘technologies that seek to acquire novel biological or molecular diversity’’ and ‘‘technologies that seek to generate novel but pre-determined and specific biological or molecular entities through directed design’’ (National Research Council 2006, p. 3).” p 86
  3. “Over the past few years the emergence of two such organisations could be observed: the International Consortium for Polynucleotide Sequencing (ICPS) and the Industry—now renamed into International Association Synthetic Biology (IASB). While ICPS has been revolving around mostly US-based DNA synthesis companies, IASB founding members have been German gene synthesis and bio-informatics companies.” P 86
  4. “IASB activities agreed upon during a 2008 meeting also put emphasis on DNA order screening, but additionally emphasise the formulation and implementation of best practices across the industry. One key element of such a scheme is the agreement on an industry-wide code of conduct. Oversight and enforcement of standards, however are not regarded as falling into industry’s area of responsibility. As clearly spelled out in the IASB workshop report, ‘‘[u]ltimately, the definition of standards and the enforcement of compliance with these is a government task’’ (Industry Association Synthetic Biology 2008, p. 14).”  p 87
  5. “Article I of the BWC does not cover research on BW, but just development, acquisition, or stockpiling of BW. It is   therefore essential for any comprehensive bio-Ensuring the security of synthetic biology security governance system to be able to address the BWCs shortcoming on the international level of not being able to address dual-use research activities that could be misused for nefarious purposes.” pp87-88

Open Science, Synthetic Biology



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