In focus: The challenges of synthetic biology

The challenges of synthetic biology

In focus: The challenges of synthetic biology

By Mr Federico Mantellassi, Research and Project Officer in Global and Emerging Risks, Geneva Centre for Security Policy

Synthetic biology refers to the concepts, approaches, and tools that enable the engineering of biological organisms and their redesigning to have new abilities. The field has seen a recent boom with discoveries of affordable and precise genome-editing techniques such as CRISPR, which allows researchers to alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. Most importantly, the cost of genome sequencing and synthesis has plummeted. In the last 20 years gene synthesis has become a thousandfold cheaper and sequencing a millionfold cheaper. Synthetic biology holds significant promise in the medical field. In fact, the capacity to manipulate living organisms or to create new artificial biological components can spur the development of new drugs and medical procedures. Synthetic biology is, for example, behind the mRNA vaccines used to help manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Another example is the promising use of CART-T cells (genetically modified T-cells) in cancer immunotherapy. In other industries, synthetic biology could lead to the creation of new materials and textiles, contributing to reducing the carbon footprint of petroleum-based or textile-based industries. In agriculture, synthetic biology could help us to produce more resilient crops, reducing the need for harmful pesticides. However, synthetic biology also poses unique challenges to international security as some of its applications are of dual-use.

Weaponising biology

One of the chief concerns around synthetic biology is that some of the capabilities it enables can lead us to make pathogens more harmful, synthetically recreate known pathogenic viruses or produce toxic biochemicals in genetically modified organisms. The potential misuses are myriad. Experts warn that synthetic biology tools such as CRISPR could indeed “expand the range of biological threats that need to be defended against by making it easier and cheaper to edit biological organisms with malicious intent. In 2016 the US intelligence community added gene editing to the list of threats posed by weapons of mass destruction and their widespread proliferation. While there are substantial challenges to successfully weaponising biological agents (linked to delivery, targeting or production), it is likely that advances in the field or technological innovation in other fields will decrease the difficulty of doing so. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, a single virus can have enormous consequences both in terms of lives lost and economic and social disruption caused that are greater than any single nuclear detonation. The misuses of synthetic biology capabilities could have similar – and potentially worse – disruptive potential, as biological attacks are simultaneously high-consequence and difficult to defend against. While the threat today remains relatively low, it is important for policy and regulations to stay ahead of future possibilities.

The proliferation of risk

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into focus the potential risks of gain-of-function research. It has also highlighted that the spread of techniques for assembling and manipulating viruses, especially in combination with cheap DNA synthesis, leads to a proliferation of risk and an increase in the number of potential malicious actors. Gain-of-function research intended to better understand pandemics or predict which virus could cause the next one might inadvertently lead us to spreading the knowledge of how to make one. Indeed, as GCSP Polymath Fellow and MIT Assistant Professor Dr Kevin Esvelt states, “to credibly identify a single virus as capable of causing a pandemic, is to give thousands the power to wield it as a weapon”. For example, when researchers successfully re-created the horesepox virus in 2017 in the hope of using it as a basis for a smallpox vaccine, experts warned that the recipe for horsepox was subject to misuse as safeguards to ensure the synthetic biology tools utilised, or the methodology followed would not be misused, are lacking. While it is important not to overstate how far the science has democratised (the fears that anyone is able - or will soon be able - to create deadly viruses in their garages are overblown), the existence and proliferation of easy-to-use synthetic biology techniques, coupled with the ease of access to commercial synthetic DNA could lead to thousands of people being capable of weaponising this information. It is not out of the question that non-state actors could subsequently utilise this capability to create biological weapons. A 2018 report commissioned by the US Department of Defense found that synthetic biology does indeed expand the range of actors who could undertake these efforts.

Democratisation and de-skilling

A cornerstone of the discussion around synthetic biology and its risks revolves around the “de-skilling” and democratisation of the technology, enabling more and more people to have access to gene-editing tools. Indeed, a culture of do-it-yourself (DIY) synthetic biology – a movement in which amateur scientists, hobbyists, and other individuals study the discipline and conduct experiments – has emerged. “Bio-hackers” who conduct biology experiments on themselves in the hope of improving or upgrading their genetics have also gained in clout. While DIY synthetic biology, together with the simplification of some techniques and the ease of access to materials, comes with some risks, it is important not to overemphasise them. By and large, the DIY community is concerned with responsible research and mutual oversight, and poses few security risks. Still, elements such as “bio-bricks” – standardised biological parts that can be assembled with other parts to form new ones – are furthering the “standardisation” of synthetic biology. In other words, they are enabling the development and use of standardised biological parts to construct new genetic systems. The use of simplified, standardised “building blocks” reduces the difficulty of assembling genetic circuits, and could be used by terrorist organisations to build harmful agents.

The level of tacit knowledge, expertise, resources, and time needed for the most advanced and disruptive synthetic biology procedures remains high. But however limited it currently is, the “de-skilling” trend is a sign that synthetic biology is democratising. The democratisation of a disruptive emerging technology often entails its proliferation. It is therefore essential that appropriate governance safeguards are put in place to guard against the potential malicious use of synthetic biology by individuals or non-state actors such as would-be bioterrorists. Additionally, aside from safety concerns, there are various unanswered questions around the ethics of editing the human genome and carrying out human experiments, as well as the effect that such technologies might have on what it means to be human. The societal implications of a future in which editing one’s DNA could become mainstream are also unknown.

Looking ahead…

Synthetic biology remains today in its infancy, but its transformative potential underscores the importance of ensuring that its development minimises its potential for misuse. The technological advances enabling the manufacture and editing of biological organisms’ properties coupled with the democratisation of the technology are expanding the number of individuals with access to these techniques, thereby increasing the number of potential malicious actors. While the barrier of entry to the most disruptive applications of synthetic biology remain high, it is imperative that they remain so. The goal of the international community should be to ensure the establishment of appropriate governance guardrails for the technology and to ensure that robust international safety standards are put in place before advances can be made that will test them. The risks associated with the proliferation of the capability to engineer deadly viruses or irreversibly edit genomes with malicious intent are simply too high.


About this blog series

The 21st century has ushered in an age of unprecedented technological innovation; disproportionately for the better. However, as digital technologies take more and more space in our lives, recent years have shown that they can sometimes have unintended security and societal impacts. There is an urgent need to guarantee the safe and globally beneficial development of emerging technologies and anticipate their potential misuse, malicious use, and unforeseen risks. Fortunately, technological risk can be addressed early on, and the unintended negative consequences of technologies can be identified and mitigated by putting ethics and security at the core of technological development. This series of blogs provides insights into the key challenges related to three emerging technologies: artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and neurotechnology. Each blog promotes an “ethics and security by design” approach, and are part of the Polymath Initiative; an effort to create a community of scientists who are able to bridge the gap between the scientific and technological community and the world of policy making.


Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.

Federico Mantellassi is a Research and Project Officer for the Global and Emerging Risks cluster at the GCSP. He is also the project coordinator of the GCSP’s Polymath Initiative.