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Synthetic DNA Plan Limits Risk, Experts Say

Significant advances in synthetic gene production have raised a critical question for industry leaders and national security experts: How can the research and trade in tailor-made DNA continue while assuring that the materials aren't available to criminals and terrorists?

Proposed federal guidelines can secure genetic material that could be used to create harmful pathogens without stifling promising research in medicine, agriculture, and energy production, experts said at an 11 January meeting at AAAS. The guidelines propose voluntary screening of both potential buyers and the sequences they're seeking.

While some participants suggested fine-tuning, “the overall sentiment was that the guidance is well thought out, facilitates advances in scientific knowledge, and allows for international engagement,” says a summary from the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. [Download the summary]

Following the release of the guidelines last November, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of State asked AAAS to convene a group to informally evaluate the draft guidance. Nearly a hundred researchers, industry representatives, and policy experts gathered at the meeting organized by Gerald Epstein, director of the AAAS Center, and Kavita Berger, the Center's associate program director for biosecurity.