Two new articles

A few weeks ago, I published a short interview/profile of National Medal of Science recipient Warren Washington over at JustGarciaHill. I haven’t done one of these in ages, but I got a lot of practice in the past when I used to write a regular monthly feature on the history of some ‘classic’ molecular biology techniques, for which I’d track down and interview the folks who made it all happen. In some cases, it was pretty straightforward to track them down because they’d have gone on to win a Nobel or become head of Caltech or something like that, but in other cases they’d retire or leave science or otherwise drop off the map, and I’d have to pull a bit of a Sam Spade to make it happen. I remember at least one case where the guy I was looking for had left research more than a decade ago, and the only way I found him was through his membership in a Scottish beekeeping organization that happened (against all probability) to be maintaining a well-updated public website. Dr. Washington fell plainly in the former camp – he’s been at NCAR for decades, and is a regular on the lecture and interview circuit. He was very nice and helpful and although there were no shockers or scandals in this write-up to spice things up, he’s an interesting guy and it was definitely a fun change of pace.

I also published a news feature in this month’s Nature Biotechnology about the recently issued government guidelines on how synthetic DNA companies should screen orders and customers in an effort to intercept purchases that might be put to dubious use by shady individuals. A big motive force behind this document was the mini-scandal brewed up by a UK Guardian reporter back in 2006, when he managed to purchase a small segment of the variola (smallpox) virus genome with a personal credit card, and had it sent to a residential address. The DNA itself was harmless – and the reporter managed to rile up synthetic biology luminary Drew Endy with his efforts to enlist the latter’s help in designing a harmless, but smallpox-specific gene order (“Please consider reporting the news instead of creating it,” responded Endy).

Nevertheless, the fallout from the stunt is now seen as one of the reasons for both the government guidelines and a series of ‘best practices’ documents put out by the various leading gene synthesis companies. This article partly originated from conversations with Steve Maurer over at UC Berkeley, who raised a number of legitimate concerns that the standards put forward in the government’s draft version of the  guidance in late 2009 were holding companies to a lower standard than they were already holding themselves. His concern was that these companies would sacrifice their own best practices to instead pursue the simpler – and potentially less effective – path proposed by the USG. Most of the other people I spoke to were relatively generous to the USG standard, while acknowledging its clear limitations and shortcomings. The main point seems to be that in the absence of an effective database and screening methodology for reliably recognizing potential threats based on consistent, agreed-upon standards – right now, we’ve got various ‘pathogen lists’, but none of these was purpose-built for sophisticated bioinformatic screening and analysis purposes – we’ve got to start somewhere. And that’s what this is: a basic place from which we’ll hopefully get to somewhere better and more effective.

Hopefully Maurer’s concerns will be addressed in future versions of the document. Assuming, of course, that the methods and technology of synthetic biology haven’t completely outpaced any potential for conventional regulation or oversight within the next year or so… especially with oligonucleotide synthesizers already available to the DIY-minded on eBay for less than $10,000.

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