Synthetic biology

Top threats from weaponized organisms

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Illustration: Axios Visuals

During the Cold War era, the American government was able to closely monitor and prepare for advances in chemistry and physics. Now, some researchers say the U.S. needs to do the same for future threats from engineered organisms.

Threat level: Synthetic biology, which can help fight diseases and produce improved food and fuel, can also already be weaponized in part, warned a group of researchers Tuesday in presenting their 200+ page report to the Department of Defense.

The big business of enzymes

Ginkgo Bioworks

Synthetic biology startups are breaking into the multi-billion-dollar market for industrial enzymes that power reactions for pharmaceutical, chemical, textile, food, and other companies.

How? Synthetic biologists take component DNA sequences that form different enzymes and patch them together to create a biological code. This code can produce new pathways for enzymes to work together or for organisms to produce them. These are then handed to commercial partners who manufacture them in bulk.

Tobias Erb from the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology is trying to create new pathways to capture and convert CO2 — last year they designed one that is more efficient at this than photosynthesis. He tells Axios:

"The power of synthetic biology lies in the fact that nowadays we are able to order and test synthetic DNA in a standardized fashion and for very little money, which allows us to test many different enzymes and enzymes variants. The problem is that the testing itself now creates a bottleneck."