As I have pointed out before, genes can now be synthesised from scratch in a matter of days. Bioweaponeers can create world-ending viruses with the click of a few keys. Some students at Virginia Tech had a good idea. How about if we monitor what genes people order over the internet and give some sort of warning if someone orders something nasty!
From Biotechniques, July 27, 2010
Students who competed at iGEM in 2009 have created a series of algorithms that can determine if unauthorized persons purchase synthetic cell parts that resemble biological weapons.
Synthetic biology is a rapidly expanding field and the demand for biological parts is rising. Research into disease progression, drug delivery, and synthetic life are just a few of the ways that biological components can be extremely beneficial to researchers. But synthetic biology could be used for more sinister purposes, like biological warfare, if genetic components are used to create deadly viruses or toxins.
“When biological weapons were cultures of anthrax or other select agents, it was possible to prevent the spread of biological weapons by restricting access to dangerous samples. Now anyone can obtain sequences that are potentially dangerous,” Jean Peccoud, associate professor at VBI and leader of Virginia Tech’s iGEM initiatives, told BioTechniques. “So it is important to detect the possibility that people are using gene synthesis in an illegitimate way.”
According to Peccoud, a resurrection of 1918’s pandemic influenza virus is a good example of dangerous gene synthesis. “If someone were to order this sequence again, it would be important to detect it, and make sure that the person placing this order intends to use it for legitimate research,” said Peccoud. “The iGEM work will help gene synthesis companies and their customers ensure such research.”
This is a good idea. By all means, let’s not sell killer viruses to whomever has 35 cents a base to buy them. But what if the bad guys don’t need to order their killer viruses online? What if they have their own gene synthesis machines and can make all the killer viruses they want without telling anyone? Oops.
What is our defense against a country like China which does in fact have its own gene synthesis machines and can produce whatever type of viral monster it wishes whenever it wants?
None. None whatsoever.
Hey, Virginia Tech students. Could you work on that problem?
No-one else is.