Synthetic Biology Security Course

synthetic biology security
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Overview: Practical Introduction to Synthetic Biology Security

Synthetic biology security can be difficult to assess. The emergence of synthetic biology is catalyzing a change of paradigms in life sciences. It supports the development of a new generation of biotechnology products, it enables radically new kinds of experiments in basic research, and it provides new training opportunities for students enrolled in a broad range of programs from high-school to post-graduate.  It is challenging to anticipate new security risks arising from this change of socio-technical environment.

The purpose of this course is to provide a practical understanding of synthetic biology workflows with the goal of giving students a hands-on experience allowing them to better assess the vulnerabilities associated with this new technology.


The development of recombinant DNA technology revolutionized biology, allowing researchers to construct expression vectors and introduce them into cells to express foreign genes or native genes controlled by new promoters. Until recently, construction of expression vectors was routinely accomplished by ligating together DNA fragments generated by restriction enzyme digestion. However, traditional recombinant DNA methods are mostly limited to recombining natural DNA fragments to produce the final product.

Two developments have made it possible for any molecular biology laboratory to synthesize and clone genes without the need for a DNA template. First, is the ability to perform template-free polymerase cycling/chain assembly (PCA). PCA is accomplished using a mix of oligonucleotides (oligos) that overlap and anneal to form a long DNA chain. The second development important for gene synthesis is ligation-independent cloning (LIC) methods. LIC allows one to clone DNA fragments without restriction digests or, in some cases, sequence constraints. Template- and restriction enzyme-free gene synthesis removes the limitations of traditional cloning methods and allows researchers to generate completely new DNA sequences limited only by the design rather than the methods.

In addition to progress in DNA manufacturing, a new generation of instruments is making possible to quantitatively measure the expression of genes in individual live cells. These new datasets have made it possible to develop mathematical models that are predictive enough to support a rational design of synthetic DNA molecules that meet user-defined specification. Progress in predictive modeling has catalyzed the development of Computer Assisted Design software applications that streamline the design, fabrication, and testing of new DNA molecules.


The purpose of this course is to provide the students with a practical understanding of most techniques involved in the completion of a synthetic biology project. This will be achieved through a combination of lectures and laboratory work leading to the complete design, synthesis, and testing of a synthetic genetic system. Students are expected to have basic knowledge in biology, but the course is designed to accommodate students who have no practical laboratory experience.

At the end of the course, students will be able to better understand synthetic biology security including existing vulnerabilities in synthetic biology workflows, the potential and limitations of current technologies, and the anticipated evolutions of some of these technologies.

Target Audiences

Security, intelligence, and law enforcement professionals who need to anticipate the security implications of synthetic biology.

  • Intelligence analysts
  • Program managers
  • Policy makers
  • Forensic scientist

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