Synthetic biology raises bioterror fears

The potential for synthetic biology to become a tool for bioterrorists has caused a rift within a coalition of research laboratories heavily funded by the National Science Foundation.

A dispute over security procedures at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, led by the University of California 0 Berkeley, has highlighted the potentially dangerous consequences of the research, according to the New York Times.

The controversy centers on the resignation of a biosafety expert Paul Rabinow, who left SynBERC because he believed the coalition was not doing enough to prevent a future biological disaster.

Rabinow was initially hired to evaluate the ethical and security ramifications of the center’s research and to report his findings to the top administrators, including the National Science Foundation, which granted SynBERC $23.3 million.

“It had begun to worry me how profoundly irresponsible these guys are,” Dr. Rabinow said, the New York Times reports. “There are possibilities of all kinds of nefarious things happening. There is no reason that someone couldn’t modify a virus; you could release it on an airplane or subway, and it could have profound terror effects.”

Jay Keasling, SynBERC’s director, disagrees with Rabinow’s assessment and said that Rabinow had failed to do his job.

“Paul failed in two realms: actively communicating what he wanted to do and actively carrying them out,” Dr. Keasling, who is also an executive of the United States Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, said, the New York Times reports. “It became clear over time that he wasn’t going to do the job.”

Rabinow is particularly concerned that hackers or rogue scientists could use seemingly benign DNA sequences to manufacture a deadly virus. SynBERC scientists possess the technology to identify which DNA sequences can be used to modify genes to create novel functions, but the sequences are stored in public databases.

“DNA synthesis companies have no way of currently telling, once the sequences are put together, what the result will be,” Dr. Rabinow said, according to the New York Times. “Somebody could manufacture pathogens that are dangerous to the environment.”

Keasling said that synthetic biologists diligently police themselves and added that the notion of a terrorist using a company to acquire and customize genetic sequences is “far-fetched.”