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Addressing Biosecurity Threats in Synthetic Biology

Taylor Sheahan - June 20, 2018

Chris Isaac at the Meeting of States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Chris Isaac at the Meeting of States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in Geneva, Switzerland.

In 2017, the University of Lethbridge Collegiate iGEM team aimed to lower barriers to synthetic biology to the public, by developing a modular and safe cell-free platform. Cell-free approaches to biological engineering provide a promising alternative to cell-based systems. This is due to their reduced complexity and potential for bio-contamination, as wells as novel engineering capabilities, such as the ability to incorporate non-canonical amino acids and toleration of toxic compounds. Due to the inherent safety of cell-free platforms, the team envisioned such a system would provide a powerful tool as an educational platform, which could be used to teach students the basics of synthetic biology. Additionally, the cell-free platform would be accessible to the public, enabling "DIY" enthusiasts and biotechnology start-ups. 

Although the potential for cell-free platforms is high, it is necessary to address the potential misuse of cell-free systems and develop a strategy to mitigate the threat of suspicious users. This is where Chris Isaac, a member of the U of L iGEM team, comes in. Isaac identified that the flexibility of cell-free systems makes them highly amenable to genetic recoding, where canonical relationships between codons and anticodons are not necessarily consistent. Thus, there is the potential for dangerous users to “encrypt” sequences that, when synthesized using a novel genetic code, will produce a harmful compound. To address this threat, Isaac aimed to develop software that would identify recoded sequences to ensure that they will not be synthesized. At the 2017 iGEM Giant Jamboree, Isaac and the team were acknowledged for their ability to identify biosecurity risks associated with cell-free systems, as well as for their initiative taken to develop mitigation strategies. 

Building on the momentum from the Giant iGEM Jamboree, Isaac was selected along with four other students to travel to the UN campus as an iGEM delegate. In the winter of 2017, the delegates attended the intersessional Meeting of the States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in Geneva, Switzerland. 

“At the convention, we were able to attend the plenary sessions and listen to statements made by the parties” says Isaac. “While these statements appeared to be largely formality, they were in fact glimpses into long-standing issues, brief remarks on current events, and calls to action for the continued support of the BWC.” 

The delegates had the opportunity to discuss biosecurity and synthetic biology with representatives from around the globe, creating an open dialogue between young scientists and regulatory officials. 

“The experience provided a great look into how governments prevent and control biological threats, and was also a good introduction to the non-governmental agencies who are working on these problems.”

Continuing his work towards addressing biosecurity threats associated with synthetic biology, Isaac received the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Fellowship at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, which fosters the development of the next generation of leaders in biosecurity. Isaac is one of 28 individuals selected, and is also the youngest member of the 2018 class. 

iGEM delegates, including Chris Isaac (second from Left), at the BWC in Geneva, Switzerland.

iGEM delegates, including Chris Isaac (second from Left), at the BWC in Geneva, Switzerland.

“I was thrilled to have been selected as a fellow and have since travelled to Washington, DC for the first fellowship meeting. We had the opportunity to meet with staff of the National Security Council on the White House campus and discussed national-level priorities for biosecurity, challenges, and the direction that biosecurity programs are headed.”

Currently, Isaac is a Biochemistry Master’s student at the University of Lethbridge in the lab of Dr. Athan Zovoilis. In addition to graduate studies and the fellowship program, he is participating in his 7th year of iGEM, as well as continuing to develop his biosecurity software suite. 

“With both of these experiences combined, my most important takeaway is two-fold. First, there are great people working on issues of biosecurity from all sides, they come from all walks of life, and work at all levels of administration; international, national, state, provincial, academic, and non-governmental. Secondly, it reaffirms my belief that scientists need to be more involved with government, and communicate outside of academic or industrial silos. We should be seriously considering dual-use implications for even basic research that might enable other unrelated technologies to be used improperly”.

Taylor would like to thank Chris Isaac for sharing his experience.