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quence screens. "That's not our business," says Bob Xue, a director of Genemed Synthesis in South San Francisco.

Even if they don't routinely perform sequence checks, some companies say that they do investigate their customers. But the scope of these checks varies widely. But email addresses are notoriously easy to fake. And even orders from legitimate institutions may not be what they seem. Alfred Lasher, who manages Picoscript in Houston, Texas, says that he turned down one orderplaced by an individual at a US biotech firm, after Picoscript's enquiries revealed the gene was being ordered on behalf of a friend in another country.

Experts are concerned that the checks currently employed by some companies aren't sufficient to exclude orders placed by terrorists. "We're taking this very seriously," says Endy. Together with the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, Endy's research group at MIT has launched a study into the risks and benefits of synthetic genomics, and aims to produce a set of policy recommendations by late 2006. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, set up last year to advise the US government on which advances in biology could be exploited by terrorists, is also considering the issue.

Some gene synthesis companies say they would welcome more detailed rules. John Mulligan, president of Blue Heron, says it would be helpful to have a list of "select sequences" that are off-limits for gene synthesis without explicit government permission, rather than having to make difficult judgments based on the list of select agents. "Tell us what we can't make," he implores.

But with gene synthesis firms springing up all over the world, and the underlying technology becoming cheaper and more widely available, it is unclear whether regulations enacted in any one country will be enough."It's going to be virtually impossible to control,"
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Source:New Scientist Boston office


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