This New York Times article claims that

Their DNA could be put on a watch list, as sequences for anthrax and smallpox are, so any attempt to buy them from DNA supply houses would raise flags. Chemically silent DNA “watermarks” could be inserted so stolen yeasts could be traced. Or the strains could be made “wimpier and harder to grow,” Dr. Oye said, perhaps by making them require nutrients that were kept secret.

I have not heard of such a system before, and from the viewpoint of a molecular biologist, this seems rather implausible, considering that molecular techniques such as Gibson assembly and site-directed mutagenesis, which would certainly be familiar and accessible to someone who orders DNA can be used to synthesise the sequence.

Furthermore, whole genome synthesis is extremely inefficient, and it would not make much sense to put the anthrax genome on a watch list, considering Mycoplasma laboratorium took several years to synthesise, and has slightly over 10% of the length of the anthrax genome.

Is there any evidence that commercial DNA synthesis labs maintain such a watch list?

  • The argument that you could use Gibson assembly to circumvent such a list, makes it useful to keep possible existence of a list and it's exact mechanics secret. The NSA doesn't have a reputation of wanting it's surveillance known publically and getting a copy of every DNA sequencing ordered should be well within their power. – Christian May 23 '15 at 17:37
  • 1
    Also on Biology. – HDE 226868 May 23 '15 at 18:54

Yes, DNA sequencing labs monitor sequences ordered for certain "sequences of concern".

At least two gene synthesis companies claim to follow the U.S. governmental Screening Framework Guidance for Synthetic Double-stranded DNA Providers, which recommends that providers screen both customers and sequences, and that they ask additional questions if a potentially dangerous DNA sequence is ordered:

Providers should establish a comprehensive and integrated screening framework that includes both customer screening and sequence screening, as well as follow-up screening when customer and/or sequence screening raises a concern.

• Customer Screening - The purpose of customer screening is to establish the legitimacy of customers ordering synthetic dsDNA sequences. Providers should develop customer screening mechanisms to verify the legitimacy of a customer if the customer is an organization or confirm customer identity if the customer is an individual, to identify potential ‘red flags,’ and to conform to U.S. trade restrictions and export control regulations.

• Sequence Screening - The purpose of sequence screening is to identify when “sequences of concern” are ordered. Identification of a “sequence of concern” does not necessarily imply that the order itself is of concern. Rather, when a “sequence of concern” is ordered, further follow-up procedures should be used to determine if filling the order would raise concern. Sequence screening is recommended for all dsDNA orders.

• Follow-up Screening – The purpose of follow-up screening is to verify the legitimacy of customers both at the level of the customer and the principal user, to confirm that customers and principal users placing an order are acting within their authority, and to verify the legitimacy of the end-use.

Genewiz claims to follow the framework in its FAQ:

Q: Does GENEWIZ have a procedure in place to address potential biosecurity concerns for gene synthesis projects?

A: GENEWIZ is fully aware of all risks and benefits associated with gene synthesis research. With the knowledge that gene synthesis technologies have the ability to enable de novo reconstruction of dangerous pathogens, GENEWIZ employs rigorous quality control policies and procedures to safeguard against abuse of the genes we synthesize. GENEWIZ actively monitors the Screening Framework Guidance for Synthetic Double-Stranded DNA Providers, drafted by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as well as the Select Agents and Toxins list put forth by the U.S. Government.

IDT also claims to follow similar regulations in its press release:

IDT’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel for International Legal and Regulatory Affairs, Damon Terrill, spoke about the screening standards and practices applied by all IGSC member companies, and their close collaboration with federal authorities. He discussed how the IGSC’s sequence and customer screening protocol achieves the objectives of the US Government’s draft Screening Framework Guidance for Synthetic Double-stranded DNA Providers

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