First Round Interviews: Safeguarding DIYBiology

Interview Subjects: A DNA cryptographer, two post-docs (Broad/Whitehead Institute)

Big takeaways:

DIYBiology isn’t the threat: The biggest surprise for me from these interviews has been that I may have overestimated the potential threat of nefarious do it yourself biologists. While the two post-docs I interviewed had heard of the DIYBiologists, neither seemed to think that it would be feasible (from a technical basis) to gather the infrastructure or technical know-how needed to make something that could cause serious harm. One made the point that while papers have been released on controversial topics (i.e. Horsepox), the margin of error of mistakes leading to experimental failure is low and the ad-hoc knowledge needed to develop highly technical molecular biology products is so large that you would need deep experience before being able to cause real harm. They did concede, however, that if the practitioner was already well trained (coming from an institution) and used a DIYBiology lab as a space to do work, that kind of person might be able to do real harm.

Adoption of any code based method will be slow: Code based systems are back-end intensive. The DNA cryptographer I spoke with is working a project to encrypt DNA synthesis for sensitive applications (primarily DNA sequences known to be hazardous). This involves creating a repository database of all hazardous DNA sequences and having all DNA synthesis companies/synthesizers rely on this database to query all orders before making DNA. The process would work much like how photocopiers are all unable to photocopy currency. This process requires first creating such a databases and then convincing the many suppliers of DNA synthesis machines to adopt it. One of the cryptographers biggest concerns is how to gather the support and adoption of their system or any such system. Without the buy-in from the synthesis companies themselves, they are dead in the water. Photocopying currency has a clear and direct call-to-action, which can be understood and made relevant to the lever of the Law. DNA cryptography is very technical and doesn’t have the same kind urgency. Acting on just the lever of code is difficult work.

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