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DRDC Suffield

Synthetic biology is a novel, developing science that is introducing new technologies and capabilities to biology. It gives scientists the ability to create novel systems operating in existing organisms, as well as a growing capacity to synthesize fully synthetic life. There are concerns developing however, that this type of research could lead to either the purposeful, or inadvertent creation of harmful organisms or bioweapons. Increased affordability of synthesizing gene sequences, as well as the increased accessibility of synthetic biology are both issues that our increasing these fears. Therefore our team felt that we should gain an expert’s perspective on the danger’s of synthetic biology.

Our iGEM team presented the concept of biobricks, the registry of standardized parts, and the iGEM competition to researchers at DRDC Suffield. Defence Research and Development Suffield, or DRDC Suffield, is a Canadian Military Research facility located in southern Alberta. A major focus of DRDC Suffield is addressing chemical and biological threats. It is also the host of the Counter Terrorism Technology Centre, a key component of national defence that uses unique laboratories and testing facilities to help better prepare Canada from chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) threats.

Following our presentation we engaged in a roundtable discussion with researchers and experts. As with most scientists, DRDC Suffield scientists acknowledged that synthetic biology, including iGEM projects, have the dual-use capability. This refers to biological research with legitimate scientific purpose, but also has the potential for misuse that would threaten public health, and/or national security. Another danger discussed was the potential to synthesize harmful pathogens from digital genomes, such as smallpox. Although this would be catastrophic if achieved, it was not interpreted as a priority to our security because of the difficulty of “rougue” scientists achieving such a momentous task. A more “real” application of synthetic biology causing dangers to our security was the potential to synthesize biotoxins, or other poisons that could be derived from DNA sequences.

Other discussions revolved around the “open source” nature of iGEM. Although the registry was met with a positive response from experts, they were also able to see the concerns with making synthetic biology easier and more accessible. We discussed the dangers of making it easy for amateurs to be dealing with this technology. Some of the greatest potentials for dangers that DRDC scientists said would arise from synthetic biology were the introduction of antibiotic resistance to harmful bacteria, and then being released in to the public.