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Past Activities 2017-2018

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Advances in Synthesis Technology Pose Challenges for CBD Objectives [#8483]
Advances in Synthesis Technology Pose Challenges for CBD Objectives

Gene and organism synthesis technologies, whose development has accelerated in the last biennium, pose a number of challenges to the Convention and its three objectives.  Examples of recent developments with significant potential impacts include:

1. Reported this week, resurrection of an extinct pathogen (the orthopoxvirus horsepox, 212k bases) by Canadian researchers at a cost of only $100,000 using mail order DNA ordered from a European "gene foundry".  In addition to obvious security concerns surrounding this event and the largely unregulated gene foundry industry, must consider the potential biodiversity impacts of cheaper, faster, and more widely available capacities to synthesize microorganisms, authorized or unauthorized, and their potential impact on biodiversity if released, authorized or unauthorized. (See: Kupferschmidt K 2017. How Canadian researchers reconstituted an extinct poxvirus for $100,000 using mail-order DNA. Science. 6 July. DOI: 10.1126/science.aan7069)

2. Organisms produced by synthesis are not limited to viral pathogens and some bacteria.  By the end of this year, the Synthetic Yeast Genome Project plans to have produced a wholly synthetic eukaryotic yeast genome of 12 million base pairs contained in (their description) "16 designer synthetic chromosomes". While this yeast may or may not be of direct concern per se (it obviously depends on what is done with it), the project is indicative of the dramatic acceleration in the length and complexity of genomes that may be wholly synthesized. (See: syntheticyeast.org)

3. Advances in (Re-)Animation Devices.  Machines designed to facilitate the synthesis of genomes from digital sequence information are rapidly advancing. The so-called "digital-to-biological converter", whose design was published in Nature Biotechnology late last month, purportedly significantly advances automation of synthesis technologies: "Specifically, DNA templates, RNA molecules, proteins and viral particles were produced in an automated fashion from digitally transmitted DNA sequences without human intervention."  This includes, according to the authors, synthesis of double stranded DNA, viral particles, and protein synthesis from DNA constructs.  The authors aim to make the device "more robust and portable".   (Boles KS et a; 2017. Digital-to-biological converter for on-demand production of biologics. Nature Biotechnology. May. doi:10.1038/nbt.3859)

In the interest of brevity, here I will specifically point out only two of the many implications that these developments have for the Convention:

1) Novel pathways for invasive alien species (IAS), and novel invasive alien species  (Objective 1: Conservation)

Clearly, synthesis of organisms from digital sequence information produces a new route for the spread and introduction of alien invasive species.  Traditional measures, such as border protection, can be leapfrogged by digital transmission of code across borders, enabling creation of an invasive species novel to a particular geography, or an invasive variant of an existing species in a given ecology. Routes for introduction of such IAS can be deliberate, accidental, or criminal, and will become more varied and difficult to control with the further development and dissemination of synthesis techniques and machinery.

2) Use of genetic resources without benefit-sharing (Objective 3: Fair and equitable sharing of benefits)

These developments further underscore the urgent need to address how synthesis technology coupled with digital sequence information (DSI) can and has given rise to misappropriation (aka biopiracy).  Generation and transmission of DSI, and its use (including proprietary claims) can occur without application of access and benefit sharing rules and regulations, leading to loss of benefits by provider countries and communities.  Such uses are and will continue to become more difficult to track.  This is a matter of urgency for the Convention as these developments threaten to undermine Objective 3 and, thereby, the Convention itself.

It should be noted that Parties have agreed that "digital sequence information" is a term presently used as a placeholder, and that alternatives have been proposed (e.g. "natural information").

For an example of  'digital biopiracy', please see international patent application WO2015023461 from the University of Pennsylvania and private company Inovio. This patent application claims a “consensus [hemagglutinin] sequence” of H7 (SEQ ID: 40) influenza, indicated as synthetic, but which in fact is the exact sequence of a 2013 H7 isolate from a human infection in China. The patent application does not divulge the origin of the sequence.

Edward Hammond
posted on 2017-07-10 15:06 UTC by Mr. Edward Hammond, Third World Network
This is a reply to 8483 RE: Advances in Synthesis Technology Pose Challenges for CBD Objectives [#8485]
Edward Hammond responds concisely to the question asked about challenges to the CBD objectives [#8483]. His examples remind us that synthetic biology is cross-cutting with issues in other fora. Participants of this forum may also wish to submit views regarding the various “new and emerging issues” submitted for COPXIV
whose deadline is 15 August 2017 and "Digital sequence information on genetic resources”
whose deadline is 8 September 2017.
posted on 2017-07-10 16:11 UTC by Mr. Joseph Henry Vogel, University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras