Is gene synthesis an “easy” technology?

By Gigi Kwik Gronvall, December 5, 2007

The other participants in this roundtable have (rightly) focused not on the
access to genetic sequence information, but what it is possible to
do with that information. In one scenario, sequence information could be used to recreate
pathogens from scratch, through gene synthesis technology. (A recent report,
Genomics: Options for Governance,”
outlines three basic sets of policy options for dealing with
the dark side of gene synthesis technology and gives the advantages and disadvantages of each
course of action.)

I would like to pick up the topic by addressing a question that Jens Kuhn asked: “Is gene
synthesis an ‘easy’ technology that, with the proper access to machinery and reagents, could truly
be used by nonprofessionals (e.g. criminals and terrorists) to create microbial genomes in the
nearest future? Or does the technology require a level of sophistication and financial support that
will only be available to professionals?” Iris Hunger wrote that “it is not easy to synthesize a
virus, not even for experts.” And Leonid F. Ryabikhin wrote that developing bioweapons, in general,
requires “a high-level of scientific and technological know-how. Numerous other obstacles make this
task extremely complicated.” The general feeling seems to be that biological weapons, particularly
pathogens synthesized from scratch, are just too hard to make to be a real threat, particularly
from individuals or small groups.

If that is the case, and the technical obstacles are in fact a good deterrent toward bioweapons
development–terrific! But, frankly, I’m not that optimistic, and I believe that the urgency of the
problem requires that much more be done to mitigate an attack, such as preparing hospitals and
investing in more rapid production of medical countermeasures, etc.

Why don’t I think that we can rest easy? Just a few reasons: Firstly, expertise can be bought.
Al Qaeda apparently paid $1.5 million to acquire highly enriched uranium–thankfully, it turned out
it was not as advertised. (For more information on this incident, please see this
report.) But members of
Al Qaeda thought they could purchase the expertise and the material required to create a nuclear
device, and
experts believe that this is feasible and worrying. In comparison, it would
likely be less expensive to acquire the skills and reagents to build a biological weapon, even a
pathogen synthesized from scratch.

Secondly, advanced technology will become more accessible. Before I went to graduate school, I
worked as a lab technician, making short stretches of oligonucleotides for researchers at Memorial
Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. What I did, day in, day out, was very routine and required only a
little training. But 10 years earlier synthesizing a short stretch of oligonucleotides could form
the basis of a PhD thesis. An incredibly useful technology like gene synthesis will likely become
accessible to the scientific masses even more rapidly–10 years from now, it is likely that it will
be found in labs everywhere.

Thirdly, high levels of scientific sophistication can be found globally. Gene synthesis
technology, and other complementing technologies that could be used to make a biological weapon,
are not out of the range of biotech companies, research institutions, and individual scientists in
many parts of the world. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy to make a biological weapon. But with
persistence, it is doable, especially when the people doing the work are not breaking new
scientific ground and know that it is physically possible that they can accomplish their goals.

I still think it is a good idea to keep sequence information freely available, because the
benefits to security, to the development of medical countermeasures, and to scientific advancement
outweigh the risks–but there
are risks.


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