Experts Debate the Risks of Made-to-Order DNA

Michael Schulson in Undark:

If DNA is the code of life, then outfits like GeneArt are printshops — they synthesize custom strands of DNA and ship them to scientists, who can use the DNA to make a yeast cell glow in the dark, or to create a plastic-eating bacterium, or to build a virus from scratch. Today there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of companies selling genes, offering DNA at increasingly low prices. (If DNA resembles a long piece of text, rates today are often lower than 10 cents per letter; at this rate, the genetic material necessary to begin constructing an influenza virus would cost less than $1,500.) And new benchtop technologies — essentially, portable gene printers — promise to make synthetic DNA even more widely available.

But, since at least the 2000s, the field has been shadowed by fears that someone will use these services to cause harm — in particular, to manufacture a deadly virus and use it to commit an act of bioterrorism.

Meanwhile, the United States imposes few security regulations on synthetic DNA providers. It’s perfectly legal to make a batch of genes from Ebola or smallpox and ship it to a U.S. address, no questions asked — although actually creating the virus from that genetic material may be illegal under laws governing the possession of certain pathogens.

More here.