Experts discuss the risks of ordering DNA

Illustration of a smallpox virus (variola).
Magnify / Illustration of a smallpox virus (variola). A membrane (transparent) derived from the host cell covers the virus particle. Inside this is the nucleus (green), which contains the particle’s DNA genetic material. The core has a biconcave shape.

In November 2016, virologist David Evans traveled to Geneva for a meeting of the World Health Organization’s Committee on Smallpox Research. The deadly virus had been declared extinct 36 years earlier; the only known live samples of smallpox were in the custody of the United States and Russian authorities.

Evans, however, had a startling announcement: Months before the meeting, he and a colleague had created a close relative of the smallpox virus, effectively from scratch, in their laboratory in Canada. In a subsequent report, the WHO wrote that the team’s method “did not require exceptional biochemical knowledge or skill, significant funds or significant time.”

Evans disagrees with that characterization: The process “requires an enormous amount of technical skill,” he told Undark. But certain technologies made the experiment easier. In particular, Evans and his colleague were able to simply order long stretches of the virus’s DNA by mail, from GeneArt, a subsidiary of Thermo Fisher Scientific.

If DNA is the code of life, then outfits like GeneArt are printers—they synthesize custom DNA strands and send them to scientists, who can use the DNA to make a yeast cell glow in the dark, or to make a plastic-eating bacterium, or to to build a virus from scratch. Today, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of companies selling genes and offering DNA at ever-lower prices. (If DNA resembles a long piece of text, prices today are often less than 10 cents per letter; at this rate, the genetic material needed to begin engineering a flu virus would cost less than $1,500.) And new benchtop technologies – essentially portable gene printers – promise to make synthetic DNA even more accessible.

But since at least the 2000s, the field has been shadowed by fears that someone will use these services to cause harm — specifically to produce a deadly virus and use it to commit bioterrorism.

Meanwhile, the United States imposes few safety regulations on suppliers of synthetic DNA. It’s perfectly legal to make a batch of genes from Ebola or smallpox and send it to a US address, no question — although actually making the virus from that genetic material may be illegal under laws governing the possession of certain pathogens.

Whether that is a legitimate cause for alarm is up for debate. Some experts say that creating a virus from synthetic DNA remains prohibitively difficult for most scientists, and that fears of an attack are often exaggerated. At the same time, new nonprofit initiatives, fueled by money from Silicon Valley philanthropists and sometimes conjuring up worst-case scenarios, are pushing for stricter protections against the misuse of synthetic DNA. However, implementing effective security is difficult – and so is enforcing any kind of norm in a vast, multinational industry.

“It’s not that I’m worried about something happening tomorrow. But the reality is that this ability is becoming more and more powerful in terms of how long the DNA fragments can be, what you can make with them, the ability of the recipients to assemble the DNA fragments into a new virus, says Gregory Koblentz, a biodefender. researcher at George Mason University. “These are the kinds of things we should really be more proactive about – and try to get ahead of.”

Perhaps the most prominent scientist to warn of the dangers of uncontrolled DNA synthesis is Kevin Esvelt, a biotechnologist at MIT. In the conversation, Esvelt moves quickly between technical details and Cassandra-like alarm. He often talks about Seiichi Endo, a Japanese virologist who in 1987 joined the apocalyptic Aum Shinrikyo sect. Endo helped carry out a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway, and the group tried—but apparently failed—to get hold of the Ebola virus.

Since then, it has become easier to create pathogens, thanks in part to the wider availability of synthetic DNA. “It is very difficult for me to imagine that a trained virologist from Kyoto University is not able to assemble an influenza virus today,” Esvelt said.

As Esvelt describes it, the problem with synthetic biology is about power: New technologies have given a group of scientists the keys to building unimaginably dangerous insects. Very few—perhaps none—of these scientists have any desire to exercise this grim superpower. But, claims Esvelt, it is only a matter of time before the next Endo arrives.

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