Guidelines proposed for businesses trading in custom-made DNA sequences

A set of guidelines for how providers of custom-made DNA sequences do business has been proposed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The proposal is the first comprehensive guidance issued by the government addressing bioterrorism concerns resulting from the rapidly developing synthetic genomics industry. Some security experts believe that a terrorist group or lone terrorist believe that bioweapons could  be developed from these materials, which are openly available through the internet.

The main recommendation of the guidelines is that synthetic companies should screen both their clients and the DNA sequences that they request. This would allow customers to establish the identity and institutional affiliation of customers.

The proposal also calls for companies to look for red flags, including clients who place several orders of the same sequence within a short time frame, who attempt to pay by cash or who request that the product be mislabeled. Foreign clients, the proposal says, should be screened against terrorist databases and other lists of concern.

A specific approach to screening orders is also set forth by the guidelines, which call for companies to use a "best match" strategy involving analysis to find out if the requested sequence is statistically closer to a select agent or to a non-select agent. If a select agent is found, the company would then follow up with the client to determine what the material will be used for. These suspicious orders would then be reported to the government and all paperwork would be archived for eight years.

The comment period for the proposal ends January 26.