A team of students from ENSIMAG, an engineering school in Grenoble, France, and Virginia Tech is using bioinformatics to implement federal guidance on synthetic genomics. The students' work will help gene synthesis companies and their customers better detect the possible use of manufactured DNA as harmful agents for bioterrorism.
Synthetic biology offers huge potential for practical applications in medicine, energy production, agriculture, and other areas. For a few thousand dollars, it is now possible to design custom DNA sequences the size of a viral genome, order these sequences from a DNA manufacturer, and receive the DNA in the mail within a few weeks. Experts are concerned, however, about the potential misuse of these emerging technologies and that is where the student's project could play a key role in preventing synthetic biology malpractice.
Jean Peccoud, associate professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) at Virginia Tech and leader of Virginia Tech's iGEM initiatives, said, "The students have taken great strides in implementing different possible interpretations of the federal recommendations. Their work characterizes the relationship between the computational cost of the screen and its sensitivity. This independent scientific analysis will identify practical solutions compatible with the operational constraints of commercial operators and refine policies aimed at protecting the nation without undermining its competitiveness."
Algorithms under development assess how similar a specific DNA sequence is to entries in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Select Agent and Toxin List. Keyword lists help to track down matches and allow for continual fine-tuning of the effectiveness of each search. The students are compiling a database of test cases that allows them to estimate the performance of different screening strategies.
Edward You, supervisory special agent in the Federal Bureau of Inve
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