Synthetic DNA technology is about to become mainstream and that will make it very difficult to control what is done with it
In principle, it is enough to enter Twist Bioscience, load the sequence we want and, a couple of weeks later, collect our personalized synthetic DNA in the mailbox of our house. Starting at nine cents for each base pair. Five or six years ago, that same pair of bases would have cost, at least, ten times more.
This, a priori, is good news: the democratization of these technologies will allow more and more institutions to investigate the recesses of DNA in the face of a health and food revolution that we are already beginning to see. However, as this happens, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to fall into the wrong hands.
Yes, literally, in fact. Current technology prints inkjet bases on a glass slide, and they are then assembled automatically. The result is a synthetic DNA sequence that can be introduced into bacteria, yeast, fungi, or other distinct cells to turn them into miniature factories.
In this way, the synthetic DNA industry is manufacturing some 3,000 million letters a year with the idea of building a permanent source of compounds useful in drugs and food products. With this technology, we can even create new proteins and design never-before-seen materials. The potential is almost limitless.
Great power ...
In this sense, the famous virologist and synthetic geneticist Benjamin Parker, pointed out that "great power requires great responsibility". As technology becomes easier and cheaper, our real ability to control its use is fading.
And this worries investigators and, above all, those responsible for national security. We must not forget that it is more than proven that with this type of machine the smallpox virus can be reconstructed "from publicly available information, in just six months and for about $ 100,000."
Well, $ 100,000 was what it cost to do in 2017, in a few years that price could be (will be) ridiculously lower. It is such a certain risk that the industry itself has begun to generate control protocols.
At Twist Bioscience, the company that makes 10% of the world's synthetic DNA, they told NPR that they thoroughly check every customer (and every sequence) to avoid unwanted problems. But it doesn't seem enough.
There are many things to do (and to think about)
In a sense, we are living in a moment analogous to the early days of computing. The transition from gigantic, slow and expensive machines to small, fast and affordable devices is, as I say, a reality. And that requires new regulatory approaches.
Regulations to come, inevitably. The question is whether these regulations will come reactively (when the first big problem occurs) or will arise from a social reflection that combines health security with the work of researchers who work precisely to contain these threats.