Biologists who have been obtaining DNA sequences online from companies will soon have a more convenient option: benchtop machines that can print all the DNA they need. But this technology brings with it new risks by circumventing how synthetic biology companies now screen for would-be bioterrorists. A report released yesterday by a Washington, D.C., think tank urges companies and governments to revamp existing screening to prevent someone with malign motives from making a toxin or pathogen.

The current screening system, which is voluntary, “could be upended by benchtop DNA synthesis,” says report co-author Jaime Yassif, vice president for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “Governments, industry, and the broader scientific community need to put stronger safeguards in place to ensure this technology is not exploited by malicious actors and that it doesn’t lead to a catastrophic accident,” she says.

The ability to synthesize DNA has been around since the early 1980s. The technology has become a central component of genetic research and is used to develop novel pharmaceuticals, agricultural products, and biofuels. Synthetic DNA sequences are available online from roughly 100 companies, which print the DNA and ship it to their customers.

This arrangement has long raised concerns that malign actors could synthesize the DNA to make a powerful toxin or even a pathogen capable of triggering another global pandemic. In 2010, the U.S. government released voluntary guidelines for DNA synthesis companies, recommending that they vet customers and screen ordered sequences against known dangers. Members of an industry group called the International Gene Synthesis Consortium, which carry out the majority of DNA synthesis worldwide, agreed to abide by the standards. But attempts to mandate such guidelines “have been really, really slow,” says Elizabeth Cameron, a biosafety expert at Brown University who previously worked on biodefense issues at the White House.

 Advances in DNA synthesis technology will heighten those concerns, says the report, by offering any lab the chance to buy a benchtop DNA printer that can make DNA on demand. Over the next 2 to 5 years, the report notes, the length of stretches of DNA that can be synthesized with these machines will likely increase from about 200 base pairs today to as many as 7000 base pairs, the size of the smallest viruses.

The report’s authors argue that these advances will speed up synthetic DNA production and biological research. But they could also undermine the current system of voluntary oversight, as the longer lengths of DNA from these machines make it easier to splice together large pathogen genomes.

“There is a greater potential for misuse and pathogen engineering,” says Sarah Carter, head of Science Policy Consulting LLC and a co-author.

The report recommends that benchtop synthesis devicemakers vet their customers to ensure they are legitimate biotechnology researchers. It also calls for build-in protections, such as software that allows the manufacturer to screen all requests for DNA sequences prior to synthesis. Governments should update their voluntary guidelines for customer and sequence screening, the report adds, and adopt mandatory requirements applying to devices operating within their borders. Biotech funding agencies and journals also need to adopt tighter customer and sequence screening practices, it says.

Mike Daniels, who heads product development at Evonetix, a DNA synthesis devicemaker, hopes tougher, universal standards will prevent a race to the bottom, in which companies eliminate biosafety measures to save money. “We need a strong and clear baseline of minimally acceptable standards,” says Daniels, who supports the report’s recommendations. “This will make sure there is a level playing field.”

Kevin Esvelt, a biotechnologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agrees. “If we’re going to take pandemic nonproliferation anywhere near as seriously as we take nuclear nonproliferation, we need to ensure that every future synthesis device, benchtop and otherwise, securely and confidentially screens for an up-to-date list of hazards.”  

But getting governments to work out and adopt new regulations quickly will be a challenge, Cameron says, adding that the clock is ticking. “Benchtop synthesis is here,” she says. “We really need to do this now.”