U.S. National Research Committee issues report on bioweapon security systems

A 13-member committee of the U.S. National Research Committee recently issued a 187-page report that concluded that the use of DNA-based security scanning system to detect bioweapons is still a technology of the future.

The goal of the research was to discover if it was possible to create a detection system that would spot bioweapons in the making by screening the genetic sequences routinely ordered from commercial suppliers of synthetic DNA, Nature.com reports.

Researchers concluded, however, that such a biosecurity system was still years in the making.

Sean Eddy, one of the authors of the report and computational biologist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, told Nature.com such a system was so technologically distant that the concept was useless for practical applications.

“This is a prediction problem that can't be solved, now or in the foreseeable future,” Eddy said.

The committee did identify one change that was possible with current technology, which involved the creation of a sequence-based classification system that would be used for the regulation of dangerous pathogens.

The NRC researchers concluded that such a system could be used to help determine when a new genome sequence should be considered one of the existing select agents, which would help clarify confusion by variants of existing pathogens.

The U.S. currently regulates a list of 82 pathogens and toxins, called select agents. These agents are known to pose a potential biothreat and are subject to restricted access. Currently, nothing identifies these agents beyond taxonomic labels, Nature.com reports.

The report also describes a “yellow flag” biosafety system that would address sequences of concern. The system would consist of a centralized biosafety sequence database that would be annotated as evidence of the function of suspect genes comes to light. A yellow flag designation may not trigger regulatory action, the authors noted. It could be followed by a “common sense” follow-up, however, like a telephone call from a synthetic DNA company to make sure that a customer is legitimate.