Hey buddy? Wanna a good deal on gene?
The advertisement (right) is not science fiction.
Blue Heron Biotechnology of Bothell, Washington “can synthesize any gene regardless of sequence, complexity, or size …”
Gene synthesis is a revolutionary technology, which offers the prospect of making life better for millions of people around the world. The ability to order the exact gene would revolutionize the production of vaccines and the creation of tiny bio-machines.
But what if you wanted to cook up some synthetic polio in the lab?
You can do that, too.
A group of researchers from SUNY Stoney Brook synthesized polio over the course of three years. Blue Heron claims it can perform a similar size job in a little under 12 weeks.
Terrified yet? In 2003, a CIA Report entitled The Darker Bioweapons Future warned that advances in biotechnology “could be used to create the worlds most frightening weapons.”
Blue Heron has refused orders that seem suspicious—for example, Blue Heron turned down an order from Saudi Arabia for a variola gene related to smallpox—but not all manufacturers of synthetic genetic material screen purchases.
The process is called oligodeoxyribonucleotide synthesis—“oligo synthesis” for cocktail party conversations where you somberly warn of the threat from “oligo terrorism” before excusing yourself to refresh that G&T.
Harvard Medical School’s George Church proposed establishing a voluntary DNA Instrument & Reagent Registry to establish licensing and screening proceedures.
More generally, several papers outline oversight regimes to allow the life sciences to proceed safely, including the National Academies’ Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism and a paper by my CISSM colleagues entitled, Controlling Dangerous Pathogens: A Prototype Protective Oversight System.
Fascinating, if terrifying, stuff.