An Examination of Contingency in Synthetic Genomics Research and Implications for National Security




Fye-Marnien, Shannon

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The fields of synthetic genomics and synthetic biology have garnered much attention in the biodefense community and the general public due to their dual-use nature: their potential use for both peaceful applications and harmful purposes. Although many researchers are using the technologies to improve medical diagnostics, prophylaxes, and therapeutics, several publications have prompted concern over the technologies’ national security implications. These publications include a 2005 article that describes how researchers recreated the influenza virus that caused a pandemic in 1918, and a 2006 article in The Guardian that describes how a reporter easily ordered part of the smallpox genome from a synthetic genomics firm. These publications have spurred fears that terrorists or other malefactors could use synthetic genomics and synthetic biology to create dangerous pathogens. However, many mainstream assessments that voice these concerns assume that the results achieved in one experiment can be easily replicated if the necessary materials and protocols are provided, and that advances in synthetic genomics and synthetic biology will reduce the level of skill required to use the technologies. This runs counter to research in the field of science and technology studies, which indicate that there is a great deal of experimental contingency—unexpected technical difficulties—associated with using biotechnologies. Much of this contingency is due to the inherent limitations of working with biological systems, which are unpredictable and sensitive to their environments, as well as problems in reproducing well-established laboratory tasks in new contexts or settings. However, no study to date has evaluated the technical difficulties associated with synthetic genomics, a critical enabling technology for synthetic biology. This dissertation aims to fill this gap. I have interviewed representatives of gene synthesis firms and conducted a case study of the J. Craig Venter Institute’s synthesis of the Mycoplasma mycoides genome. These analyses will (1) illuminate what difficulties are associated with the use of synthetic genomics, and how those difficulties can affect the users of the synthesized DNA during their larger synthetic biology experiments, and (2) determine under what conditions malefactors could overcome those technical difficulties. In addition to enriching the body of literature that describes the level and type of expertise required to perform tasks in the life sciences, this dissertation ultimately aims to provide security analysts and government officials with better tools to improve threat assessments on biotechnologies, which might aid the development of more effective measures to counter perceived threats from dual-use technologies.



International relations, Gene synthesis, Synthetic biology, Synthetic genomics, Terrorism