synthetic biology

From left: Jean Peccoud, Randall Murch, and Neeraj Rao.

(Courtesy)


Jean Peccoud wasn't expecting an email from the FBI. He definitely wasn't expecting the agency to invite him to a meeting. "My reaction was, 'What did I do wrong to be on the FBI watch list?'" he recalls.

You use those blueprints for white-hat research—which is, indeed, why the open blueprints exist—or you can do the same for a black-hat attack.

He didn't know what the feds could possibly want from him. "I was mostly scared at this point," he says. "I was deeply disturbed by the whole thing."

But he decided to go anyway, and when he traveled to San Francisco for the 2008 gathering, the reason for the e-vite became clear: The FBI was reaching out to researchers like him—scientists interested in synthetic biology—in anticipation of the potential nefarious uses of this technology. "The whole purpose of the meeting was, 'Let's start talking to each other before we actually need to talk to each other,'" says Peccoud, now a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Colorado State University. "'And let's make sure next time you get an email from the FBI, you don't freak out."

Synthetic biology—which Peccoud defines as "the application of engineering methods to biological systems"—holds great power, and with that (as always) comes great responsibility. When you can synthesize genetic material in a lab, you can create new ways of diagnosing and treating people, and even new food ingredients. But you can also "print" the genetic sequence of a virus or virulent bacterium.

And while it's not easy, it's also not as hard as it could be, in part because dangerous sequences have publicly available blueprints. You use those blueprints for white-hat research—which is, indeed, why the open blueprints exist—or you can do the same for a black-hat attack. You could synthesize a dangerous pathogen's code on purpose, or you could unwittingly do so because someone tampered with your digital instructions. Ordering synthetic genes for viral sequences, says Peccoud, would likely be more difficult today than it was a decade ago.

"There is more awareness of the industry, and they are taking this more seriously," he says. "There is no specific regulation, though."

Trying to lock down the interconnected machines that enable synthetic biology, secure its lab processes, and keep dangerous pathogens out of the hands of bad actors is part of a relatively new field: cyberbiosecurity, whose name Peccoud and colleagues introduced in a 2018 paper.

Biological threats feel especially acute right now, during the ongoing pandemic. COVID-19 is a natural pathogen -- not one engineered in a lab. But future outbreaks could start from a bug nature didn't build, if the wrong people get ahold of the right genetic sequences, and put them in the right sequence. Securing the equipment and processes that make synthetic biology possible -- so that doesn't happen -- is part of why the field of cyberbiosecurity was born.

The Origin Story

It is perhaps no coincidence that the FBI pinged Peccoud when it did: soon after a journalist ordered a sequence of smallpox DNA and wrote, for The Guardian, about how easy it was. "That was not good press for anybody," says Peccoud. Previously, in 2002, the Pentagon had funded SUNY Stonybrook researchers to try something similar: They ordered bits of polio DNA piecemeal and, over the course of three years, strung them together.

Although many years have passed since those early gotchas, the current patchwork of regulations still wouldn't necessarily prevent someone from pulling similar tricks now, and the technological systems that synthetic biology runs on are more intertwined — and so perhaps more hackable — than ever. Researchers like Peccoud are working to bring awareness to those potential problems, to promote accountability, and to provide early-detection tools that would catch the whiff of a rotten act before it became one.

Peccoud notes that if someone wants to get access to a specific pathogen, it is probably easier to collect it from the environment or take it from a biodefense lab than to whip it up synthetically. "However, people could use genetic databases to design a system that combines different genes in a way that would make them dangerous together without each of the components being dangerous on its own," he says. "This would be much more difficult to detect."

After his meeting with the FBI, Peccoud grew more interested in these sorts of security questions. So he was paying attention when, in 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services — now helping manage the response to COVID-19 — created guidance for how to screen synthetic biology orders, to make sure suppliers didn't accidentally send bad actors the sequences that make up bad genomes.

Guidance is nice, Peccoud thought, but it's just words. He wanted to turn those words into action: into a computer program. "I didn't know if it was something you can run on a desktop or if you need a supercomputer to run it," he says. So, one summer, he tasked a team of student researchers with poring over the sentences and turning them into scripts. "I let the FBI know," he says, having both learned his lesson and wanting to get in on the game.

Peccoud later joined forces with Randall Murch, a former FBI agent and current Virginia Tech professor, and a team of colleagues from both Virginia Tech and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, on a prototype project for the Department of Defense. They went into a lab at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and assessed all its cyberbio-vulnerabilities. The lab develops and produces prototype vaccines, therapeutics, and prophylactic components — exactly the kind of place that you always, and especially right now, want to keep secure.

"We were creating wiki of all these nasty things."

The team found dozens of Achilles' heels, and put them in a private report. Not long after that project, the two and their colleagues wrote the paper that first used the term "cyberbiosecurity." A second paper, led by Murch, came out five months later and provided a proposed definition and more comprehensive perspective on cyberbiosecurity. But although it's now a buzzword, it's the definition, not the jargon, that matters. "Frankly, I don't really care if they call it cyberbiosecurity," says Murch. Call it what you want: Just pay attention to its tenets.

A Database of Scary Sequences

Peccoud and Murch, of course, aren't the only ones working to screen sequences and secure devices. At the nonprofit Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, for instance, scientists are working on solutions that balance the openness inherent to science and the closure that can stop bad stuff. "There's a challenge there that you want to enable research but you want to make sure that what people are ordering is safe," says the organization's Neeraj Rao.

Rao can't talk about the work Battelle does for the spy agency IARPA, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, on a project called Fun GCAT, which aims to use computational tools to deep-screen gene-sequence orders to see if they pose a threat. It can, though, talk about a twin-type internal project: ThreatSEQ (pronounced, of course, "threat seek").

The project started when "a government customer" (as usual, no one will say which) asked Battelle to curate a list of dangerous toxins and pathogens, and their genetic sequences. The researchers even started tagging sequences according to their function — like whether a particular sequence is involved in a germ's virulence or toxicity. That helps if someone is trying to use synthetic biology not to gin up a yawn-inducing old bug but to engineer a totally new one. "How do you essentially predict what the function of a novel sequence is?" says Rao. You look at what other, similar bits of code do.

"We were creating wiki of all these nasty things," says Rao. As they were working, they realized that DNA manufacturers could potentially scan in sequences that people ordered, run them against the database, and see if anything scary matched up. Kind of like that plagiarism software your college professors used.

Battelle began offering their screening capability, as ThreatSEQ. When customers -- like, currently, Twist Bioscience -- throw their sequences in, and get a report back, the manufacturers make the final decision about whether to fulfill a flagged order — whether, in the analogy, to give an F for plagiarism. After all, legitimate researchers do legitimately need to have DNA from legitimately bad organisms.

"Maybe it's the CDC," says Rao. "If things check out, oftentimes [the manufacturers] will fulfill the order." If it's your aggrieved uncle seeking the virulent pathogen, maybe not. But ultimately, no one is stopping the manufacturers from doing so.

Beyond that kind of tampering, though, cyberbiosecurity also includes keeping a lockdown on the machines that make the genetic sequences. "Somebody now doesn't need physical access to infrastructure to tamper with it," says Rao. So it needs the same cyber protections as other internet-connected devices.

Scientists are also now using DNA to store data — encoding information in its bases, rather than into a hard drive. To download the data, you sequence the DNA and read it back into a computer. But if you think like a bad guy, you'd realize that a bad guy could then, for instance, insert a computer virus into the genetic code, and when the researcher went to nab her data, her desktop would crash or infect the others on the network.

Something like that actually happened in 2017 at the USENIX security symposium, an annual programming conference: Researchers from the University of Washington encoded malware into DNA, and when the gene sequencer assembled the DNA, it corrupted the sequencer's software, then the computer that controlled it.

"This vulnerability could be just the opening an adversary needs to compromise an organization's systems," Inspirion Biosciences' J. Craig Reed and Nicolas Dunaway wrote in a paper for Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, included in an e-book that Murch edited called Mapping the Cyberbiosecurity Enterprise.

Where We Go From Here

So what to do about all this? That's hard to say, in part because we don't know how big a current problem any of it poses. As noted in Mapping the Cyberbiosecurity Enterprise, "Information about private sector infrastructure vulnerabilities or data breaches is protected from public release by the Protected Critical Infrastructure Information (PCII) Program," if the privateers share the information with the government. "Government sector vulnerabilities or data breaches," meanwhile, "are rarely shared with the public."

"What I think is encouraging right now is the fact that we're even having this discussion."

The regulations that could rein in problems aren't as robust as many would like them to be, and much good behavior is technically voluntary — although guidelines and best practices do exist from organizations like the International Gene Synthesis Consortium and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Rao thinks it would be smart if grant-giving agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation required any scientists who took their money to work with manufacturing companies that screen sequences. But he also still thinks we're on our way to being ahead of the curve, in terms of preventing print-your-own bioproblems: "What I think is encouraging right now is the fact that we're even having this discussion," says Rao.

Peccoud, for his part, has worked to keep such conversations going, including by doing training for the FBI and planning a workshop for students in which they imagine and work to guard against the malicious use of their research. But actually, Peccoud believes that human error, flawed lab processes, and mislabeled samples might be bigger threats than the outside ones. "Way too often, I think that people think of security as, 'Oh, there is a bad guy going after me,' and the main thing you should be worried about is yourself and errors," he says.

Murch thinks we're only at the beginning of understanding where our weak points are, and how many times they've been bruised. Decreasing those contusions, though, won't just take more secure systems. "The answer won't be technical only," he says. It'll be social, political, policy-related, and economic — a cultural revolution all its own.

Sarah Scoles
Sarah Scoles is a freelance science journalist based in Denver. She is a contributing writer at Wired, a contributing editor at Popular Science, and the author of the book Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

The bee-free honey on the left, and the Israeli team that won the iGEM competition.

(Photo credit: Zeinat Awwad)


Can you make honey without honeybees? According to 12 Israeli students who took home a gold medal in the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition with their synthetic honey project, the answer is yes, you can.

The honey industry faces serious environmental challenges, like the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder.

For the past year, the team from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology has been working on creating sustainable, artificial honey—no bees required. Why? As the team explains in a video on the project's website, "Studies have shown the amazing nutritional values of honey. However, the honey industry harms the environment, and particularly the bees. That's why vegans don't use honey and why our honey will be a great replacement."

Indeed, honey has long been a controversial product in the vegan community. Some say it's stealing an animal's food source (though bees make more honey than they can possibly use). Some avoid eating honey because it is an animal product and bees' natural habitats are disturbed by humans harvesting it. Others feel that because bees aren't directly killed or harmed in the production of honey, it's not actually unethical to eat.

However, there's no doubt that the honey industry faces some serious environmental challenges. Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious phenomenon in which worker bees in colonies disappear in large numbers without any real explanation, came to international attention in 2006. Several explanations from poisonous pesticides to immune-suppressing stress to new or emerging diseases have been posited, but no definitive cause has been found.

There's also the problem of human-managed honey farms having a negative impact on the natural honeybee population.

So how can honey be made without honeybees? It's all about bacteria and enzymes.

The way bees make honey is by collecting nectar from flowers, transporting it in their "honey stomach" (which is separate from their food stomach), and bringing it back to the hive, where it gets transferred from bee mouth to bee mouth. That transferal process reduces the moisture content from about 70 percent to 20 percent, and honey is formed.

The product is still currently under development.

The Technion students created a model of a synthetic honey stomach metabolic pathway, in which the bacterium Bacillus subtilis "learns" to produce honey. "The bacteria can independently control the production of enzymes, eventually achieving a product with the same sugar profile as real honey, and the same health benefits," the team explains. Bacillus subtilis, which is found in soil, vegetation, and our own gastrointestinal tracts, has a natural ability to produce catalase, one of the enzymes needed for honey production. The product is still currently under development.

Whether this project results in a real-world jar of honey we'll be able to buy at the grocery store remains to be seen, but imagine how happy the bees—and vegans—would be if it did.

Annie Reneau
Annie is a writer, wife, and mother of three with a penchant for coffee, wanderlust, and practical idealism. On good days, she enjoys the beautiful struggle of maintaining a well-balanced life. On bad days, she binges on chocolate and dreams of traveling the world alone.
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Scientists are turning to synthetic biology to engineer bacteria that can degrade plastic and turn it into higher-value materials.


[Ed. Note: This is the second episode in our Moonshot series, which will explore four cutting-edge scientific developments that stand to fundamentally transform our world.]

Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.

Bacteria Lactobacillus, gram-positive rod-shaped lactic acid bacteria which are part of normal flora of human intestine are used as probiotics and in yogurt production, close-up view. (Image copyright: Fotolia)

(© Kateryna_Kon / Fotolia)


"There's an app for that." Get ready for a cutting-edge twist on this common phrase. In the life sciences, researchers in the field of synthetic biology are engineering microbes to execute specific tasks, like diagnosing gut inflammation, purifying dirty water, and cleaning up oil spills. Here are five academic and commercial projects underway now that will make you want to add the term "designer bacteria" to your vocab.

​1) Bacteria that can sense, diagnose and treat disorders of the gut.

Dr. Pamela Silver at Harvard Medical School has engineered non-pathenogenic strains of E. Coli bacteria, which she calls "living diagnostics and therapeutics," to accurately sense whether an animal has been exposed to antibiotics and whether inflammation is present in its intestines.

Imagine a "living FitBit" that could report on your gut health in real time.

So how does it work? "The bacteria have a genetic switch like a light switch," she explains, "and when they are exposed to an antibiotic or an inflammatory response, the light switch flips to on and the bacteria turn color." In a study that Silver and her colleagues published earlier this year, the bacteria in mouse guts turned blue when exposed to the chemical tetrathionate, which is produced during inflammation. Then, when the animal excreted waste, its feces were also blue. For safety reasons, the excreted bacteria can additionally be programmed to self-destruct so as not to contaminate the environment.

The implications for human health go way beyond a non-invasive alternative to colonoscopies. Imagine "a living FitBit," Silver says with a laugh – a probiotic your doctor could prescribe that could colonize your gut to report on your intestinal health and your diet—and even treat pathogens at the same time. Another potential application is to deploy this new tool in the skin as a living sensor. "Your skin has a defined population of bacteria and those could be engineered to sense a lot," she says, such as pathological changes and toxic environmental exposures.

But one big social question in this emerging research remains how open the public and regulators will be to genetically modified organisms as drugs. Silver says that acceptance will require "patient advocacy, education, and showing these actually work. We have shown in an animal that it can work. So far, in humans, it's unclear."

"Live biotherapeutic products" is a whole new category of drug.

​2) Bacteria that can treat a rare metabolic disease.

The startup company Synlogic, based in Cambridge, Mass., has designed an experimental pill containing a strain of E. Coli bacteria that can soak up excess ammonia in a person's stomach, treating those who suffer from toxic elevated blood ammonia levels. This condition, called hyperammonemia, can occur in those with chronic liver disease or genetic urea cycle disorders. The pill is genetically engineered to convert ammonia into a beneficial amino acid instead.

Just a few weeks ago, the company announced positive data from its Phase 1 trial, in which the pill was tested on a group of 52 healthy volunteers for the first time. The study was randomized, double-blind and placebo-controlled, which means that neither the researchers nor the subjects knew who was getting the active pill vs. a sham one. This design is the gold standard in clinical research because it overcomes bias and produces objective results. So far, the pill appears to be safe and well-tolerated, and the company plans to continue the next phase of testing in 2018. Synlogic's treatment stands to be the first of this category of therapy—called "live biotherapeutic products"—that will be scrutinized by the FDA when the time comes for possible market approval.

​3) Bacteria that can be sprayed on land to clean up an oil spill.

"This is science fiction, but it's become a lot less science fiction in the last couple of years," says Floyd E. Romesberg, a professor of chemistry whose lab at the Scripps Research Institute in California is on the forefront of synthetic biology.

"We have literally increased the biology that cells can write stories with."

His lab has added two new letters to the code of life. At the most fundamental level, all life on Earth, including human, animal, and bacteria, relies on the four "letters" or chemical building blocks of A, T, C, and G to store biological information inside a cell and then retrieve it in the form of proteins that perform essential tasks. For the first time in history, Romesberg and his team have now developed an unnatural base pair—an X and a Y—capable of storing increased information.

"We have literally increased the biology that cells can write stories with," he says. "With new letters, you can write new words, new sentences, and you can tell new stories, as opposed to taking the limited vocabulary you have and trying to rearrange it."

The implications of his research are immense; applications range from developing therapeutic proteins as drugs, to bestowing cells with new properties, such as oxidizing oil after a spill. He imagines a future scenario in which, for example, specially engineered bacteria are sprayed on a beach, eat the oil for three generations of their life—less than a day—and then die off, since they will be unable to replicate their own DNA. Afterwards, the beach is clean.

"What we are struggling with now is the first steps toward doing that – the cell relying on unnatural information to survive, rather than doing something new yet," he says, "but that's where we are headed."

​4) Bacteria that can deliver cancer-killing drugs inside tumors.

Researcher Jeff Hasty at UCSD has engineered a strain of Salmonella bacteria to penetrate cancer tumors and deliver drugs that stop their growth. His approach is especially clever because it solves a major problem in cancer drug delivery: chemotherapy relies on blood vessels for transit, but blood vessels don't exist deep inside tumors. Using this fact to his advantage, Hasty and his team designed bacteria that can sneak drugs all the way into a tumor and then self-destruct, taking the tumor down in the process.

So far, the treatment in mice has been successful; their tumors stopped growing after they were given the bacteria, and along with the use of chemotherapy, their life expectancy increased by half.

Many questions remain in terms of applicability to tumors in human beings, but the notion of a bacterial therapy remains a promising clinical approach for treating cancer in the future.

Craft beer experts couldn't tell the difference between beer brewed with regular vs. recycled water.

​5) Bacteria that can convert wastewater into drinkable water.

Boston-based company Cambrian Innovation has a patented product called the EcoVolt MINI that uses microbes to generate energy through contact with electrodes. The company has collaborated with breweries across the country, taking their waste water and converting it to clean water and clean energy. Through the company's bioelectrochemical system, microbes eat the contaminants in the wastewater, and as a byproduct they produce methane, which can be converted to heat and power; in some cases, the process generates enough energy to send some back to the brewery.

"The main goal of the system is to produce cleaner water; the energy is an added product," explains Claire Aviles, Cambrian's marketing and communications manager.

The wastewater treatment is so effective that the water can be made suitable for reuse. One brewery client, for example, recently experimented with using the recycled water to brew a beer at a festival in California. They used the same recipe for two beers—one with typical city water and one with recycled water from Cambrian's system—and offered a side-by-side taste test to consumers and craft beer experts alike.

"Most people couldn't tell which was which," Aviles says.

In fact, most of the tasters preferred the beer brewed with the recycled water.

Turns out bacteria aren't always dirty after all.

Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.