Highlights from the 2021 Genome Engineering Biosecurity Workshop

Even before we had a commercially available instrument, the Inscripta team was committed to ensuring the responsible use of CRISPR gene editing. Biosecurity remains one of our top priorities, and we recently organized a discussion-based virtual workshop titled “Genome Engineering and Biosecurity: Industry Practices, Resources, and Opportunities” to initiate collaboration between stakeholders involved in microbial genome engineering. The workshop organizers included Beth Vitalis and Deanna Church from Inscripta, Sarah Carter from Science Policy Consulting, and Kathryn Brink and Megan Palmer from Stanford University.

The workshop was attended by more than two dozen participants from leading synthetic biology companies, academic institutions, and other parts of the genome engineering community. It initiated important discussions about common biosecurity concerns related to genome engineering, tools that could help mitigate risks, and how to develop industry best practices for biosecurity.

For more information, see the report of key findings from the workshop, or check out the highlights we’ve summarized below.

Identifying risks. The discussion spanned an array of risks, ranging from deliberate misuse of genome engineering tools to inadvertent introduction of risks that may be difficult to predict due to biological complexity at many levels and scales. This broad scope of risks reflects the diversity of the genome engineering community and points to a need for community-wide efforts to understand these risks and safeguard biosecurity.

Existing measures. Biosecurity is not a new topic, and there are already methods and practices in place to help ensure responsible use of genome engineering. For example, close collaboration between companies and customers can reduce the potential for tools or products to be misused. Available sequence screening tools can be implemented to check edit designs for potentially dangerous outcomes. Lessons can also be learned from the International Gene Synthesis Consortium, which focuses on biosecurity in the context of the DNA synthesis industry.

Remaining gaps. Workshop participants advocated for the need for more research to overcome the complexity of predicting risks on a genome-wide basis, the development of best practices that include incentives for businesses, clearer guidance for companies to determine effective biosecurity approaches, and reliable databases to support screening programs, among other ideas.

Community forum. Attendees agreed that a new group or forum dedicated to biosecurity for the genome engineering industry would be invaluable, particularly if it included participation from diverse types of organizations. Such an alliance could foster discussion, provide education, and help set standards for the industry. It would require sustained funding, strong communication, and the ability to overcome data-sharing challenges.

Inscripta would like to thank everyone who took time to contribute to this event and hope it will be the first of many dynamic dialogues and opportunities for collaboration among stakeholders.