Try as a nefarious actor might, it would be near impossible to order the ingredients for making a deadly virus such as smallpox from scratch—at least not from any reputable company.
That’s because the world’s leading gene-synthesis firms all routinely screen customer requests against DNA sequences from hazardous viruses, bacteria, toxins and other ‘select agents.’ So, as soon as any would-be bioterrorist tried to purchase fragments of the pathogen’s genome, alarm bells would go off.
Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks announced it had secured contracts worth up to $64 million to develop a range of biosecurity products for the nascent synthetic biology industry—chief among them, improved algorithms for screening orders made to gene-synthesis companies, and deep-learning models for detecting whether a DNA sample has been engineered in any way.
According to Patrick Boyle, head of design at Ginkgo, the company plans to take the algorithms it has developed over the past decade for identifying beneficial DNA sequences, and adapt the models for predicting whether bits of code could be potentially harmful.
…[I]t’s imperative for Ginkgo to be a steward for responsible science if the billion-dollar biotech firm wants to realize the full potential for good within synthetic biology. “We just think it’s the right thing to do,” [says Boyle].
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