Panel Recommends Defining Select Agents by DNA Sequence

Anthrax, Ebola, and smallpox are all dangerous pathogens that belong to a list of so-called select agents whose handling and storage are subject to special government regulations. But what about synthetically designed genomes that could be potentially as deadly as known pathogens?

The way to bring such unknown entities under regulation, according to a new National Academies report issued today, is to develop a new system of defining select agents based on DNA sequences. "That would provide a very sharp, bright line" to help gene-synthesis companies and their clients decide if a genomic sequence "meets the definition of a select agent or not," says Sean Eddy, a biologist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, and one of the report's authors.

He says the proposed classification system could also help gene-synthesis companies and government officials spot potential bioterrorism plots involving novel organisms cobbled together from different pieces of custom-ordered DNA.

Not only would such a system help address biosecurity concerns, "it would also allow us to better define emerging diseases," says James LeDuc, chair of the panel and director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch. LeDuc hopes that the government will consider sequence-based classification as it implements a new plan to tier select agents by risk.

A full story on the report and its implications is in the 6 August issue of Science.