A question of accountability: How can we prevent the release of potentially harmful human-created organisms?

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Credit: Ryan Christopher Jones/New York Times

When it comes to risk from synthetic biology applications, one source of concern is the community of DIY biologists and biohackers using bioengineering technologies outside of certified laboratories.

DIY biologists have attracted negative attention when it comes to biosecurity. Two years ago, a New York Times article warned that the popularity of DIY biology may lead to “someone getting hurt.” Due to the wide availability of cheap custom-made DNA, it is in theory easy even for lone individuals to produce pathogenic agents. “I can order gene fragments for any biological toxin and if I want, I can create the strain in my basement,” [FGen CEO Andreas] Meyer noted.

Whether the danger comes from lone biohackers, synthetic biology researchers, or multinational corporations, the DNA synthesis companies that supply them are developing safeguards. These providers screen the sequences their clients’ orders for matches with pathogens and potentially hazardous genes, though shorter sequences remain a challenger.

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“We need to think carefully about the context in which we use tools like synthetic biology. We have a responsibility to maximize these benefits, in part at least by helping to manage any risks,” said Piers Millett, Vice President for Safety and Security at iGEM, a global student competition of synthetic biology projects.

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