Our ability to read and write DNA from a lab bench is another human capability that feeds into what has been coined the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Har Gobind Khorana first artificially synthesized DNA in 1972 and machines for de novo gene synthesis entered the market by 1991. The cost of DNA sequencing, the act of reading DNA, has rapidly declined as the machines advanced. For DNA synthesis, the act of writing DNA, we can expect a similar trend as those machines advance and the technologies proliferate. The ability to write DNA brings enormous upside for minimizing the financial and human capital needed to produce small molecule drugs, rapidly develop and test vaccines, and create novel gene therapies. However, specific events clearly highlight the risks, which are often called dual-use implications in the biosecurity world, of de novo DNA synthesis. For example, in 2017, a team of Canadian researchers created horsepox from scratch - a virus in the same family as smallpox. This event raised questions about free speech and academic publishing; however, as it becomes easier for people to write and make their own DNA sequences, we must think about if our current understanding of free speech prepares us for that world.
Somebody exercising their ability to decide the order of base pairs in a sequence of DNA certainly invokes parallels to other discussions on free expression - but is it wise to treat DNA synthesis in this way? After all, this material is ubiquitous and exists in almost every single cell on Earth. Some gene therapies cure illnesses, such as the recent virus-based therapy used to halt macular degeneration. Other DNA sequences, like the one found in smallpox, can kill millions.
When discussing regulation for this enormously powerful capability, we must respect researcher autonomy and tread lightly in the imposition of security measures that may curtail scientific innovation. Sanctified researcher autonomy coupled with discipline siloing allows scientists and policymakers to avoid the conversation on how to consider DNA writing as a form of expression for the larger population. These capabilities will likely democratize after leaving the lab and explicitly interface with the general population. The prospect of many actors synthesizing DNA without safeguards must force the conversation among synthetic biologists, policymakers, ethicists, defense officials, and many others to promote a safer world.
Presently, the majority of DNA is synthesized by commercial DNA synthesis companies like Ginkgo Bioworks or ATUM for research purposes. Luckily, many of these companies have voluntarily entered the International Gene Synthesis Consortium (IGSC) to uphold certain production standards such as screening orders for potentially harmful agents. This represents a step in the right direction, but the IGSC does not come close to the type of oversight necessary if everyone were to have access to DNA synthesis technology.
To consider DNA as just another medium for expression fails at capturing the menu of risks that come following synthesis. For printed and spoken word, there is a degree of separation between the inciting speech and incited actor; but for custom DNA inserted into a replicating vector, the expression is the threat. For speech, the degree of separation affords the liberty to decide the limits after adverse effects of speech promulgate because the effects have often been rather confined. Moreover, DNA synthesis particularly stretches the concept of free expression when you realize humans don’t communicate with each other via DNA sequence, at least not in the conventional sense. When the letters themselves do the damage - such as in a influenza strain optimized for transmissibility and lethality - we cannot afford to decide where to draw the line after the fact.
The arc of history has moved civil society towards protection of free speech. Many countries have clear boundaries on the limits of free speech, but the United States is uniquely absolutist in its protections - usually so long as the speech poses no legitimate threat to others. Although, what constitutes a threat differs from one person to the next. For example, seeing a threat in Martin Luther’s 95 Theses to reform the Catholic church, King Charles V instituted the “Law of Printing,” banning the printing, sale, possession, reading, and copying of Luther’s books anywhere in the Holy Roman Empire. In this case, the newly invented printing press played the paradigm-shifting technology role. Luther’s ideas posed a threat to the Catholic church in that moment because they would undermine the integrity of the church if proliferated and legitimated. We have come a long way in our free speech philosophies in how they tie into certain inalienable rights, but we still see policymakers struggling with free speech disruptions brought on by new technologies, such as the internet amplifying misinformation before the 2016 Presidential Election. Online, the damage is difficult to quantify because worst case scenarios - such as the complete abandonment of trust of all government institutions - rely on the (re)action of millions of people. Unfortunately, if we make the same mistake with DNA writing as we did with Facebook, the human toll will likely be far worse.
Koblentz, Gregory D. "The De Novo Synthesis of Horsepox Virus: Implications for Biosecurity and Recommendations for Preventing the Reemergence of Smallpox." Health Security, 2017 Nov/Dec;15(6):620-628. doi: 10.1089/hs.2017.0061. Epub 2017 Aug 24.
UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3712c.html