THE MAGAZINE

Securing Synthetic Biology

By Joseph Straw

In October of last year, the Department of Health and Human Services released voluntary federal guidelines for U.S. synthetic biology providers. The guidelines, which were similar to the IASB’s, formalized the FBI’s WMD coordinators as the official point-of-contact for U.S. providers who encounter suspicious orders. Internationally, however, there isn’t an equivalent process, and the FBI is currently working with international partners to create one, says You.

Despite the precautions, You emphasizes that there is no identified threat of terrorism related to synthetic biology. He says he knows of no cases in which suspicious order reports resulted in criminal investigations, but he notes that in one case, a foreign order raised concerns and export-regulation questions. The company contacted its local FBI WMD coordinator. That got FBI headquarters involved; the FBI then reached out to the Department of Commerce for the precise export regulations, which the agency then passed on to the company. “In this instance, the FBI acted solely as a resource for industry,” You says.

While the capability to manufacture sophisticated genetic strains remains within corporate laboratories and academia, the science has attracted interest among hobbyists, sometimes referred to as bio-hackers or gene hackers, who often work in their homes using commercially available equipment. The FBI has engaged the hobbyist community, You says, and is further reaching out to the next generation of researchers through the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, (iGEM) an international synthetic biology competition for college undergraduates in which participants try to impart new properties and functions to organisms like yeast and bacteria.

In 2009, iGEM attracted more than 1,200 competitors from roughly 100 schools in 26 countries. The FBI attended, conducting a workshop on responsible research. This past November’s annual iGEM Jamboree, hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and sponsored by the FBI, prominently featured biosecurity issues.

You also stresses that the FBI hopes that communications go both ways. “The goal is to establish partnerships between law enforcement and the research community,” he says, “so that research communities can advise us on some of the ‘over the horizon’ security issues.”
 

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