Synthetic biology has a number of definitions. Most recently, the National Academies of Sciences (NAS), in an effort to develop further understanding of risks associated with synthetic biology capabilities, defined the field as “concepts, approaches, and tools that enable the modification or creation of biological organisms.” The NAS notes that, ‘While the goals of synthetic biology are beneficial, these capabilities also could be used to cause harm.” We concur; to be sure, synthetic biology can – and we believe rightly should – be regarded as dual-use technology, with risks that extend beyond the purview of current biosecurity controls. As originally conceived, biosecurity measures tend to be focused upon controlling access to pathogens that bad actors could use for harm; given the emphasis on physical security, such protocols were considered as policies of “gates, guns, and guards”. However, synthetic biology now affords capabilities to modify or create dangerous microorganisms, including viruses, as evidenced by synthetic development of polio, influenza viruses (and notably the 1918 strain), and horsepox, among others. While somewhat more technically difficult, engineering harmful bacteria also poses a dual use threat. While such syntheses are typically undertaken in controlled, secure laboratory environments by experienced research personnel, these endeavors are exemplary of the expanding capabilities – and power – of synthetic biology, which could be misused. Of particular concern in this regard is the growing number of synthetic DNA providers that have made molecular tools and substrates available to users worldwide.
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The views expressed in the recording are those of the individual(s) and not the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.