Can we prevent a synthetic DNA catastrophe—accidental or intentional—through these proposed safeguards?

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New approaches to DNA editing and synthesis have made it easier to manipulate biological agents and systems, increasing the risk of a catastrophic accidental or deliberate biological event. These technologies make it possible to create pathogen or toxin DNA that could be accidentally or deliberately misused. For example, in 2018 researchers published work detailing the synthesis of horsepox virus, an extinct virus related to smallpox, using synthetic DNA fragments purchased from a commercial provider.

[Editor’s Note: An international working group put together this set of recommendations aimed at preventing misuse: Biosecurity Innovation and Risk Reduction: A Global Framework for Accessible, Safe and Secure DNA Synthesis]

Key recommendations include:

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Establish an international technical Consortium as soon as possible to develop a common DNA sequence screening mechanism that is accessible at low cost and easy to use by all providers of DNA and benchtop DNA synthesis machines.

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Raise awareness among law enforcement personnel, export control officials and other relevant authorities about risks related to potential misuse of synthetic DNA and identify an agency-level national point of contact for providers if and when they recognize that someone is intentionally attempting to misuse pathogen or toxin DNA.

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The international entity described in this report will serve as a focal point for expertise, discussion and action to address biological risks associated with advances in technology, now and into the future.

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