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Powers on the Horizon? Revolution and Regulation of Synthetic DNA

Can you imagine having the powers of Spider-Man or Aquaman? Or bacteria that can turn waste into biofuels? Synthetic biology promises to revolutionize entire sectors, improving our quality of life in ways that were once only within the realm of science fiction.



This technology is revolutionizing the world, allowing us to modify and create organisms with astonishing characteristics. From enhancing medical treatments to revolutionizing agriculture, these advancements promise significant and beneficial changes, which are even difficult to fully quantify. However, with great power comes great responsibility, and thus, there are also emerging risks that require appropriate regulation.


To address these risks, the White House has implemented new regulations aimed at governing the production and distribution of synthetic genetic sequences. These measures seek to prevent the misuse of this technology and mitigate the dangers associated with synthetic DNA, ensuring that the benefits of synthetic biology are maximized without compromising our safety.


Do you want to know more about how synthetic biology is changing the world and the regulations aimed at keeping us safe? Keep reading to find out!



 

What is Synthetic Biology?


Synthetic biology is the field that combines advanced engineering and biotechnology to redesign the genetic material of various organisms, such as viruses, bacteria, yeast, plants, and animals, giving them new characteristics of practical utility.


Through DNA sequencing and genome editing, scientists can modify or create organisms with new capabilities. An example of this potential is the insertion of spider DNA into silkworms, allowing for the production of exceptionally strong and lightweight silk. More resilient crops or more effective medications are also testament to this capability.

Such advancements demonstrate how synthetic biology can revolutionize multiple fields by creating organisms with enhanced and novel capabilities.


Applications and Benefits


The applications of synthetic biology are nearly limitless, but you've probably already heard about some of them in the news:


  • In medicine, we could see living therapies where genetically engineered cells combat diseases from within the body.

  • Vaccines could be more effective and easier to distribute, crucial for combating pandemics.

  • For the environment, scientists are working on bacteria that produce nutrients for crops, reducing the need for industrial fertilizers that pollute our rivers and lakes.

  • They are also designing plants more resistant to pests and diseases, which could help conserve endangered species.


Current State and Future of Synthetic Biology


As we advance in biotechnology, new risks arise that require proper regulation to prevent potential disasters, whether accidental or intentional.


The recent regulations from the White House aim to govern the production and distribution of synthetic genetic sequences to mitigate these risks.


Regulation Context


The creation of synthetic DNA has facilitated scientific research, allowing the synthesis of genetic sequences without the need to extract material from living organisms. This has led to significant advances, such as the production of enzymes to break down plastics and the design of antibodies against diseases.


However, the ease and low cost of producing these sequences have also raised concerns about their misuse. In 2017, a team of Canadian researchers demonstrated that it was possible to reconstruct the extinct horsepox virus using synthetic DNA, highlighting the possibility of recreating deadly pathogens.


Implemented Measures


Synthetic DNA in a Lab

On April 29, 2024, the White House announced new guidelines aimed at companies manufacturing synthetic DNA. These regulations require companies to thoroughly screen orders for genetic sequences to identify and flag those that could increase toxicity or an organism's ability to cause diseases. All of this is aimed at seeking and preventing the creation and distribution of dangerous sequences that could be used to manufacture pathogens.


Scope and Limitations


The new regulations require entities receiving federal funding to acquire synthetic nucleic acids only from suppliers that implement rigorous screening procedures.

This covers a significant portion of the U.S. market. However, the regulation does not extend to scientists and private organizations, leaving a significant gap in the oversight of this technology.


Leading companies in the sector, such as Twist Bioscience, have taken proactive measures to ensure the detection of potentially dangerous sequences. Since 2016, Twist has implemented a system for reviewing requested sequences and their clients, adjusting their protocols to include smaller sequences in their screening procedures.


Its CEO, Emily Leproust, has compared synthetic DNA to dynamite, highlighting its potential for both constructive and destructive purposes. And as an industry, there is a responsibility to promote the ethical use of this technology.


Need for Broader Legislation


These measures are important but can also be seen as cumbersome. On the one hand, we can imagine self-healing, but on the other hand, we would be leaving the door open to Professor Hojo.


Legislatively, there have been attempts to introduce the Gene Synthesis Security Act, which would seek to require extensive and thorough screening of DNA sequences. However, to date, the bill has not progressed, leaving a gap in the formal regulation of this practice. Furthermore, it does not cover scientists and private organizations, which represents a significant oversight in the supervision of this technology.


Synthetic biology offers incredible opportunities to address some of the greatest challenges of our time, from revolutionary medical treatments to improvements in environmental sustainability. The new regulations implemented by the White House represent an important step towards regulating this technology to prevent public health risks.


However, the absence of legislation that encompasses all stakeholders in the sector leaves room for potential security gaps. It is crucial that both the government and the industry continue to collaborate to ensure that the advancement of biotechnology unfolds as a positive and safe force for humanity.


If you understood our last reference, you might be interested in this article about GATTACA. And if not, we recommend this post about pine trees with DNA modified.


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