Risk Assessment of Synthetic Genomics: A Biosafety and Biosecurity Perspective
The ability to synthesize molecules found in living organisms is not new for scientists in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology. However, the “synthetic biology” made possible by the genetic mapping of microorganisms, plants and animals, including the human genome, has taken this area of science into new and relatively uncharted territory. The focus here will be on “synthetic genomics” in which genetic information is synthesized using chemical components and the genomic DNA sequence of an organism. This is how investigators at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, using a published genetic sequence, synthesized a DNA version of poliovirus in 2002. Using an enzyme, reverse transcriptase, they converted the DNA to RNA and were able to grow the virus in a cell-free extract. Their synthesized poliovirus caused paralysis in animals (Cello et al., 2002). One of the authors, Eckard Wimmer, warned: “The world had better be prepared. This shows you can re-create a virus from written information.” From a biosafety and biosecurity perspective the synthesis of etiologic agents is of concern because of the potential to create completely new combinations or chimeric genomes with enhanced virulence, extended host range, and resistance to antimicrobials, antivirals or vaccines. A major concern is that an agent which has been eradicated as a source of infectious disease, such as smallpox, and one which is in the process of being eradicated, such as poliovirus, will never be truly eliminated because the information for their synthesis is readily available in sequence databases.
Technical report in support of the Sloan Foundation funded study on DNA synthesis and governance.
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