Gingko Bioworks on biosecurity

by Jason Kelly, Founder of Gingko Bioworks

Our mission is to make biology easier to engineer—that hasn’t changed for the ten years we’ve been building Ginkgo. The ability to read, write, and design DNA code is having profound positive impacts in medicine, agriculture, and manufacturing, from engineered cell therapies that can target a person’s cancer cells, to probiotics for plants that can reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers, to sustainably grown materials.

We are working to unlock the enormous power of biology: its ability to grow sustainably, to process information, and adapt to changing environments. But we’re not naive to the potential risks. We understand that as it becomes easier to engineer biology, it will become easier to engineer the part of biology that’s dangerous to humans, animals, and plants—the pathogens and parasites that can infect us. Since researchers synthesized the polio virus in 2002, it has been technically possible to chemically synthesize viruses that infect humans.

To date, the work done on synthesizing viruses has been intended for medical research and other peaceful purposes, but there is a concern that someone could theoretically produce a virus or other pathogen with the intent to harm. The intentional use of pathogens to harm others is abhorrent and something that I believe that we should never do under any circumstances—as a company and as human beings. The international community agrees with me on this: 180 countries including the United States are parties to the UN Biological Weapons Convention, which was first signed in 1972 and states that we are “never in any circumstance to develop, produce, stockpile, or otherwise acquire or retain: Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins…that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.”

As the technology for synthesizing DNA code improves, groups from governments, industry, academia, and civil society have been developing frameworks for monitoring and assessing the safety and security of these new technologies. For example, we are a part of the international gene synthesis consortium, which developed standards for screening orders made to DNA synthesis companies. Our Head of Design, Patrick Boyle, was also recently on a panel convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to assess the risks of intentional misuse of synthetic biology.

Today we’re announcing Ginkgo’s biosecurity initiative that directly addresses some of these potential threats from engineered DNA sequences. Our current work on biosecurity focuses primarily on detecting potential threats using software that analyzes DNA sequences.