FAS Roundup: From Nuclear Weapons to Synthetic Biology and Organ Procurement Organizations

By May 21, 2021

Biden Must Be Clear About What Nuclear Weapons Are For

“Sole purpose can strengthen U.S. deterrence posture—but only if senior officials are willing to devote the time and attention required to achieve its transformative potential,” writes Defense Posture Project Director Adam Mount in Foreign Policy.


Nuclear Notebook: How many nuclear weapons does the United Kingdom have in 2021?

FAS Nuclear Information Project Director Hans Kristensen and research associate Matt Korda published the latest nuclear notebook. Despite the UK’s 2010 plan to reduce the nuclear stockpile down to 180 warheads, Kristensen and Korda conclude that the arsenal never dropped below 225 warheads and remains there today.


Deep Dive: Synthetic Biology Standardization

The field of synthetic biology has enormous potential to constructively impact technology, and is already advancing research in drugs, food ingredients, and living fertilizers. As the field continues to develop, standardization of tools, techniques, and processes across research institutions can propel the United States to the forefront of synbio breakthroughs.

Synthetic biology has the potential to revolutionize many sectors, such as healthcare and agriculture. For example, researchers are working to engineer immune cells to treat cancer, correct defective genes, and optimize antibody and vaccine production. In agriculture, synthetic biology could be used to optimize plants’ ability to use nitrogen and phosphorus, decreasing the amount of chemical fertilizer necessary, or to increase the nutritional value of foodstuffs. Policymakers recognize the potential of synthetic biology: the discipline is listed as a key research priority in the Endless Frontier Act, and is the primary focus of a separate bipartisan bill that aims to support U.S. synbio research.

During his nomination hearing, Office of Science and Technology Policy director nominee and Day One Project Leadership Council Member Emeritus Dr. Eric Lander suggested that to make synthetic biology technologies accessible to innovators, the federal government should create and disseminate synthetic biology “toolkits,” as well as share best practices for their use. Dr. Lander compared this to the early stages of working with semiconductor toolkits and assembling integrated circuits. Standardization contributed to the advancement of the semiconductor industry, and could be replicated to take full advantage of synbio’s potential, standards, and standardization. Setting standards allows for exact measurements and more precise communication between researchers. For synthetic biology specifically, standardization would support the ability to scale production and take on even more complex tasks. 

Many standardization attempts in synbio have been focused on bacteria because they are generally more easily engineered than other types of cells, and they can produce valuable compounds for both research and industrial uses. Cell-free systems, where components of interest are produced artificially, extracted, or enriched from other cells and then refined in vitro, have been successfully standardized, but these systems currently lack the ability to scale or produce important substances without human intervention. Some areas that researchers are looking to standardize further include the design of strands of DNA, and the production of data and biosystem models.

One federal agency, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), is already working on establishing standards in synthetic biology. NIST is currently working with researchers and manufacturers to develop measurement tools to help compare and reproduce scientific results. One accomplishment was to produce human genome reference materials to help compare the genes of people with different lineages, increase confidence in DNA sequencing, and improve genetic tests. NIST has also helped develop reference materials for monoclonal antibodies and RNA, as well as developed the first method to use DNA to authenticate mouse cell lines used in genetic research.

Standardization would help improve communication between researchers and quality assurance across the field, and could be the key to sustained U.S. leadership in synthetic biology.  

Adapted from FAS Science Policy Blog by Mike Fisher and Linday Milliken, Nominee for OSTP director – Dr. Eric Lander – sees key federal role for creating and sharing synthetic biology toolkits, best practices.


The U.S. Government Hides Some Of Its Darkest Secrets At The Department Of Energy

“One of the unique features of government secrecy at the Department of Energy is that it is shaped in part by law – the Atomic Energy Act – and not just by executive order. So it can be even slower and more difficult to change or to update than at some other agencies,” Project on Government Secrecy Director Steven Aftergood tells The Drive. 


Unleashing International Entrepreneurs to Help the U.S. Economy Recover from the Pandemic

As the U.S. looks to recover economically from COVID-19, DHS must focus on updating the immigration system to accommodate international entrepreneurs and innovators, argue Technology and Innovation Initiative Director Doug Rand and research assistant Lindsay Milliken in a report published by Brookings.


FAS Announces Organ Procurement Organization Innovation Cohort

ICYMI, on May 4, six organ procurement organizations (OPOs) have joined the FAS Organ Procurement Organization Innovation Cohort, committing to use data science and transparency to accelerate improved patient outcomes and to inform ongoing, data-driven policy development. 


FAS Senior Fellow at Conference on Disarmament in Geneva

Earlier this month, FAS Senior Fellow Jenifer Mackby spoke about Nuclear Risk Reduction, focussing on Cyberspace and Outer Space, at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

Categories: FAS Roundup