The potential benefits to human health and welfare of improved DNA synthesis technology are enormous. But these advances present the challenge of balancing the openness of research and the vigilance necessary to be responsible for the materials, technology, and knowledge that can be misused. The demonstration of how to synthesize a virus in the absence of a template may provide a mechanism for terrorists to synthesize a more dangerous and deadly pathogen.
Currently, the extremely virulent smallpox virus is officially known to exist only at secure labs at the Center for Disease and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, and at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Russia but with new genomic technologies, it is now possible to create synthetic smallpox genomes. Who has access to the technology, what information is published, and how the technology is used are questions that require careful consideration as we move forward. Ultimately, our greatest protection will come from scientific research leading to better vaccines and therapeutics. But it is time for researchers in the biological sciences to start considering the broader implications of their work, much the way nuclear physicists have since the Manhattan project and their development of atomic weapons technology.