DNA sequence screening needs to evolve into a system that can handle shorter sequences and provide more contextual information for both known and novel sequences of concern.
The synthetic biology industry is experiencing rapid growth in both sales and technology. As more and more companies, universities, and research labs place orders for DNA sequences and genes, sequence screening programs must improve to keep pace with the more complex and sophisticated ways sequences are being used.
Why Must Screening Evolve?
There are three main reasons that screening must evolve:
Current screening programs have a large manual component: Customer follow-up, reconciling false positives, and obtaining export control permissions are essential parts of the sequence screening process. These manual, rather than automated, processes require the time and attention of individuals with the requisite training and expertise. Some of these activities can take weeks to complete.
Novel sequences can now be created with the available technology: Advances in technology make it possible for novel sequences, those that do not exist in the reference databases, to be engineered. The lack of a reference sequence will only become more prevalent as biology is digitized and AI, for example, is used to engineer novel sequences and proteins. Without a match in the reference databases, it isn’t possible for a gene synthesis company to determine the risk associated with these sequences. The lack of that vital capability could result in DNA sequences that should otherwise be flagged, to pass through the screening process undetected.
Shorter sequences can be stitched together: It’s no longer the case that a DNA sequence that is large enough to screen and flag is the only way for a bad actor to obtain that sequence. Synthetic biology tools are becoming cheaper and more accessible. As a result, it is ever more feasible to order shorter sequences (<200 bp) that can be stitched together to create a sequence of concern.
What if Screening Doesn’t Evolve?
If DNA sequence screening doesn’t evolve, there is the risk that the rate of synthetic biology innovation will fall as more scrutiny and potential regulation is placed on the industry. There will also be a greater risk to society as it will become easier for a bad actor to circumvent screening methods more easily. While slowing the pace of innovation will impact the discovery of new treatments in a negative way, the ability to circumvent screening methods will put us all at greater risk. Clearly, DNA sequence screening needs to evolve along with the technology.
What if Screening Does Evolve?
If screening evolves in tandem with the technology, there will be several benefits to science and those at risk from the intentional or unintentional use of sequences of concern. Evolved screening systems will bring about faster turnaround times for orders and more of the manual work required for follow-up will be automated. Another factor that will reduce the need for manual follow-up is the use of automated threat identification such as that provided by Battelle’s ThreatSEQ DNA Screening Service. Screening services like ThreatSEQ, along with more robust screening programs overall, will identify a broader range of potential threats. These evolutions in screening will make it possible for greater innovation and public safety to go hand-in-hand.
Screening needs to evolve to keep pace with the rate of innovation while protecting humans and the planet. An increased rate of innovation will result from the use of new methods for DNA replication and creation - within a screening program that is up to the task of identifying bad actors and/or sequences of concern. There will also be less need for outside regulation if the industry works together to self-regulate effectively. All in all, screening programs that evolve with the technology will help to ensure a more secure and prosperous world.