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Spotting Suspect Sequences

New synthetic biology tools could make piecing together a deadly pathogen easier than before, but there are watchdogs hoping to prevent that from happening, Bloomberg reports.

Last year, a Canadian team published its work recreating the horsepox virus — a relative of smallpox — using DNA fragments they ordered online. This, it adds, caused a backlash and raised concerns that a similar approach could be used to recreate smallpox. In addition, Bloomberg notes that as the field advances, it will become easier for less-equipped labs to do such tinkering.

It reports, though, that the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity in the US is working with Battelle Memorial Institute, Harvard University, Virginia Tech, and Ginkgo Bioworks to develop algorithms to spot orders for genetic sequences that could be put to nefarious use. Battelle, for instance, received an award earlier this year to develop software to predict the function of a DNA fragment to gauge its threat level.

Asha George, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, tells Bloomberg that IARPA's focus on synthetic biology is encouraging. "The amount of effort we're still putting toward the nuclear threat, the chemical threat, the incendiary threat is so much more than the United States government — or any government, for that matter — is putting towards bio-preparedness, that's just a fact," she says. "The biological threats do not receive the same level of attention as other threats."