Biosecurity at The Global Synthetic Biology Conference

By Lillian Parr

From April 12–14, Built with Biology hosted The Global Synthetic Biology Conference, an annual event that features expert speakers and provides networking opportunities for members of the synthetic biology community. The conference highlighted some exciting new biotechnologies, from novel DNA synthesis techniques to AI-enabled drug discovery, and demonstrated the rapid pace of innovation in synthetic biology.

These innovations have tremendous potential in a wide range of applications, including safeguarding health and security. However, as capabilities grow, so does the risk of deliberate misuse and unintended consequences, necessitating careful consideration of safe and secure conceptualization and implementation.

The data and technology housed by synthetic biology companies have immense value but could cause serious harm if misused, so security measures are of critical importance. For instance, access to DNA synthesis technologies could grant a bad actor the ability to construct a deadly pathogen, and inappropriate access to health data could raise major privacy concerns. Responsible stewardship of biology is essential to ensure that technological platforms are not exploited for malicious or dangerous purposes.

Fortunately, biosecurity and biosafety were central themes that were woven throughout the entirety of the conference, as evidenced by discussions from innovators and thought-leaders at the cutting edge of these topics. One panel that addressed biosecurity was “How to red-team your DNA platform” led by Renee Wegryzn, Karl Schmieder, and Jaime Yassif. In this event, panelists discussed how to safeguard synthetic biology platforms and prevent them from being hijacked by bad actors. A key point raised by Dr. Wegryzn was that the community should be actively seeking and identifying potential vulnerabilities in biotechnology and software. Using this approach makes it possible to mitigate and potentially eliminate risks at the point of design, building security and safety conscientiously into the design phase, rather than incorporating these elements haphazardly following implementation.

A second panel that focused on this topic was “Building Global Leadership in the Age of Biology.” Led by Megan Palmer, Michelle Rozo, Nishan Degnarain, Drew Endy, and Ryan Morhard, this talk focused on how to create effective relationships to enable secure implementation of novel technologies. An important thread running this through panel was the critical element of building trust among industry, government, and the public to create a biosecure future. Dr. Endy noted that in order to achieve trust with government and the public, committing to including all communities and promoting equity will be essential. If industry leaders demonstrate their trustworthiness and create transparent dialogues with the government, the benefits are twofold. First, safe and productive biological research will not be stymied by misguided fears, allowing for useful technologies to be developed and implemented. Second, the private sector can work with the government to identify the most pressing biosecurity threats, and collaborate to meet them head on. By building on this framework of trust and a commitment to inclusion and equity, the panelists were optimistic that industry leaders and government officials could build biosecurity frameworks for development and implementation of technologies that maximize the benefits of the life sciences while minimizing the security risks.

While these two panels focused exclusively on the themes of biosafety and biosecurity, other panels throughout the conference emphasized them as well. In his talk titled “Grow with Ginkgo,” Dr. Jason Kelly, CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks, mentioned the importance of developing “weather maps” for infectious disease, which would allow outbreaks to be projected and tracked, preventing them from reaching pandemic scale. He pointed to ongoing work done at Concentric, Ginkgo’s division that focuses on issues at the intersection of biosecurity and public health, and emphasized how biosecurity is always a high priority in Ginkgo’s work.

This example, amongst other highlights during this Built by Biology event, shows an emerging commitment to safety and security by industry leaders, a promising trend as synthetic biology and biotechnology capabilities expand and advances in the life sciences accelerate. It also shows how innovation can happen hand-in-hand with prioritizing safety and security. In fact, such new dynamics and priorities are opening doors in the field to simultaneously produce tools needed to combat biosecurity threats without inadvertently creating risks.

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