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National academies’s initial report on biodefense & synbio

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are working to develop a report on security concerns around synthetic biology. The committee recently put out its initial report, “A Proposed Framework For Identifying Potential Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed By Synthetic Biology” have been taking input that ends tomorrow (Sep 5 2017 at 12pm).

I’ll give some highlights here so you know that approach the committee is taking to develop their full report.


” Specifically, the focus of the study will be the manipulation of biological functions, systems, or microorganisms resulting in the production of disease-causing agents or toxins.”

As an overall framework, the committee broke the field and technology of synbio down into the “Design, Build, Test” framework and classified threats and capacities in those three buckets.



They acknowledge the wide range of current concerns from those who see whole new threats emerging along with the engineering of biology and those who think our response to threats like bioterrorism is essentially the same when you throw engineered versions of viruses or pathogens in the mix.

“Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in his annual threat assessment to Congress, grouped concerns about genome editing, an example of synthetic biology technology, under discussion of weapons of mass destruction (Clapper 2016)”

“However, bioweapons are not a new phenomenon, and others have countered that, although advances in synthetic biology may add to the biological weapons landscape, these developments do not fundamentally change the landscape or warrant special action to address concerns (Vogel 2013; Jefferson et al. 2014).”

You can see the major synthetic biology technologies being considered in figure 1 which organized in the design build test framework.

  • Design
    • Automated biological design
    • Metabolic engineering
    • Phenotype engineering
    • Horizontal transfer and transmissibility
    • Xenobiology
    • Human modulation
  • Build
    • DNA construction
    • Editing of genes or genomes
    • Library construction
    • Booting of engineered constructs
  • Test
    • High-throughput screening
    • Directed evolution

A major question for the committee will be which of these new capabilities changes what biosafety and national security officials should be doing.

Another factor will be what technologies are being overlooked in this study. Gene drives have certainly caused a lot of discussion about unintended consequences of reshaping an ecosystem, but could one readily be maliciously engineered? A gene drive would have a whole host of different concerns that the transmissibility of an engineered virus. Attacks to our environment or agriculture system could be devastating to our economies and security but doesn’t get covered in this report.

“The committee did not address the potential ways in which plants, animals, and the pathogens that affect them could be modified for malicious purposes, for example, to undermine agricultural productivity, although the economic and societal impact of such an attack could be substantial. The committee also did not address the modification of organisms to affect the environment or materials, except insofar as such efforts would directly impact warfighters by, for example, degrading their protective gear. Nonetheless, the technologies that might be used to threaten agricultural, environmental, or material targets, and the capabilities associated with those technologies, are likely comparable or even identical to the technologies and capabilities included in the committee’s framework; as a result, the framework may be useful for a broader array of contexts than those addressed in this study.”

This initial report claims that much of the analysis would also be applicable to environmental or infrastructure attacks, but it would be interesting to see another future report tool at where things might be different. Everything can’t fit into one report, and I hope this report and framework are only one step in the synthetic biology community figuring out how new technologies change our biosecurity landscape.

For the final report the committee will build on this initial framework “by considering the factors presented here and developing informed answers to questions such as those posed in this interim report.” That final report should provide insight into what biosecurity concerns are most warranted and what can be done in case those concerns are realized.


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