TR: Among existing organisms, what has the biggest potential for harm?
DB: I think viruses are the major focus of concern. They are relatively simple to make and control and some are quite lethal. Smallpox, for example, is very potent, and we are not protected against it. The smallpox sequence is published, so you could recover it by synthesis if you had the lab facilities to do that. But getting the pieces of DNA to make smallpox is not a backyard experiment. You need a large lab with significant biosafety precautions. I don’t see this as something that would happen clandestinely in the U.S., but a well-funded lab outside of this country could do something quite nefarious.
TR: Is regulation within the scientific community enough to deal with these threats?
DB: I find that the scientific community is sensitive to the need for appropriate control of research and that the scientific community does this better than outside groups. That is the message from Asilomar and the message from the Fink report [issued by the National Research Council in 2003 reviewing regulations of dual-use biological research].
TR: What should the outcome of the Synthetic Biology 2.0 conference be?
DB: I hope the outcome would be sensitizing people to the potential concerns. And if there is a focused question, such as: What is the danger associated with this research? then bringing together groups of biologists is appropriate. It’s important not to keep the discussion solely within the government.