Michael Imperiale, an esteemed microbiology and immunology professor at the University of Michigan, recently chaired a national committee to help write a report that aimed to prioritize and identify potential threats in the advancing field of synthetic biology. The report, titled “Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology,” was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense and published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.”

According to Imperiale, synthetic biology alters biological organisms through various types of computational and design methods.

“Synthetic biology refers to a set of concepts, approaches and tools that facilitate the modification or creation of biological organisms,” Imperiale said. “These approaches are, for the most part, founded in engineering principles.”

While synthetic biology has many positive contributions to society such as biofuels and new drug development, Imperiale said it also has the capability to do harm.

“The Department of Defense asked the National Academies to take this study because they really wanted to get some advice about what the potential vulnerabilities with respect to biodefense would be due to this emerging technology,” Imperiale said.

Patrick Boyle, an organism designer at Ginkgo BioWorks Inc. who also helped author the report, has direct experience with the synthetic biology industry.

“When I was a graduate student in synthetic biology less than 10 years ago, I synthesized about 10 genes over the course of my entire thesis work,” Boyle wrote in an email interview. “At Ginkgo, my team designs tens of thousands of genes every month for synthesis. This work gives me a perspective on how ‘bad actors’ might use synthetic biology if they have a lot of resources and large teams at their disposal.”

Imperiale explained the process of writing this report could be broken down into two parts.

“The first thing we did was to come up with a framework for how to look at these capabilities that are enabled by synthetic biology and then determine how much concern should we have about any of these capabilities,” Imperiale said. “In the second part what we did was apply the framework to a series of capabilities that we thought were the most obvious to think about.”

The report ranks 12 capabilities of synthetic biology in terms of their potential threat to society based on the framework created. Altering bacteria ranks near the top of the list, according to Imperiale.

“One of the ones we thought was of most concern was modifying bacteria to make them more dangerous,” Imperiale said. “For example, someone could take a bacterium that causes disease and engineer it so that it’s now resistant to antibiotic treatment; it’s now much harder to treat.”

The framework is intended to apply to any new developments in synthetic biology that may arise in the future as well.

“Biotechnology is changing rapidly, so our ranking of threats in the report itself is just a snapshot of current capabilities,” Boyle wrote. “I expect the framework itself to be more enduring as it anticipates that the barriers and bottlenecks limiting the nefarious uses of synthetic biology will be challenged by new discoveries.”

In an email interview, Nina Lin, chemical engineering associate professor at the University, wrote her lab uses synthetic biology to address issues of renewable and sustainable fuel as well as chemical production.

“It’s very important to point out that the synthetic biology research community is very aware and proactive to the dual use of this highly promising and powerful technology,” Lin wrote.  “Almost at every major synthetic biology conference, there are sessions dedicated to the safety issues where researchers and other experts come together to discuss and formulate preventive plans.”

Lin addresses biosecurity and biosafety in her classes. One of her students, Adam Krieger, a graduate student in cellular and molecular biology, wrote the applications of synthetic biology could even alter humans.

“To me the most promising and potentially the most scary application of synthetic biology is the potential for CRISPR to be used to engineer human germ line cells,” Krieger wrote. “It is likely that this technology will be developed with the express purpose of treating disease (fixing disease-causing genetic mutation before fertilization) but once the technology has sufficiently developed, I think it is almost certain that it will at some point be used to create so-called ‘designer babies.’”

Imperiale said the promise of this field and its rapid development are reasons to keep an eye on it.

“It would just have to be someone or some group or some country that decides it wants to cause harm.”

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