Safeguarding Benchtop DNA Synthesis

By , , and July 14, 2021

Benchtop DNA synthesizers could become more ubiquitous, and it’s up to policymakers to chart the way forward

The genetic blueprints for humans, plants, disease-causing bacteria, and all other living things are written in DNA, and machines capable of synthesizing DNA are becoming more accessible to potential users. Benchtop DNA synthesizers promise to increase the speed and efficiency of research in academic and industrial laboratories; however, it will be critical to incorporate safeguards into benchtop machines to prevent the printing of DNA sequences that would be used for harmful purposes. Researchers should be permitted to operate a benchtop DNA synthesizer to, for instance, make genetic material that is then used by a microbe to build a biofuel. But, aside from research conducted by pre-approved specialists, printing DNA that codes for deadly agents like the ricin or diphtheria protein toxins, for example, should be prohibited. As instruments capable of small-scale, rapid-turnaround DNA synthesis are already starting to enter the market, policymakers may be faced with a new era of democratized DNA synthesis, and should grapple with how to maximize the benefits of this technology while minimizing potential harm.

A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report speculated that by 2027, individuals both with and without formal scientific training would be rapidly prototyping and developing biological designs and products. In both institutional and DIY contexts, there are protections that could be put in place to drastically reduce the likelihood of the misuse of benchtop DNA synthesizers. For instance, a January 2020 report from the World Economic Forum, crafted in collaboration with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, recommends that benchtop DNA synthesizers:

  • Be sold to and accessed by only legitimate, validated users;
  • Incorporate a mechanism that compares DNA sequences entered into the machine for synthesis to a database of pathogen and toxin DNA sequences before DNA strands are printed;
  • Allow synthesis of potentially hazardous DNA only for users preauthorized for such sequences, and prohibit the synthesis of pathogen or toxin DNA requested by unauthorized actors; and
  • Be used by individuals who have received training in biosafety and biosecurity.

Before efficient benchtop DNA synthesizers become even more ubiquitous, decision-makers have an opportunity to craft forward-thinking policies that both (i) protect the technology from misuse and (ii) promote its potential to advance human health, a cleaner environment, and many other public goods.

This CSPI Science and Technology Policy Snapshot expands upon a scientific exchange between Congressman Bill Foster (D, IL-11) and his new FAS-organized Science Council.