The BWC ISU is the closest thing to an international organisation to ensure biology is used solely for beneficial purposes. It is housed in the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs in Geneva and, as Deputy Head, Piers helps States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention ban the hostile use of biology. As a microbiologist and chartered biologist, Piers supports the technical aspects of the ISU's work.

Reports and Publications

Security Implications of Synthetic Biology and Nanobiotechnology by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, 2011

Symposium on Opportunities and Challanges in the Emerging Field of Synthetic Biology by the OECD and Royal Society, May 2010

Synthetic Biology: Scope Applications and Implications by the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, May 2009

Technical solutions for biosecurity in synthetic biology by the Industry Association Synthetic Biology, 2008

Trends in American and European Coverage of Synthetic Biology by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scolars, 1 November 2008

Synthetic Biology: Social and Ethical Challanges by the Institute for Science and Society, May 2008

Synthetic Biology and Biosecurity Awareness in Europe by SynBioSafe, November 2007

Synthetic Genomics: Options for Governance by the J Craig Venter Institute, CSIS and MIT, October 2007

Other Resources

Why Secure Modern Biology?

This is a 30 minute video arguing why we need to secure synthetic biology. It was filmed at SB4.0 in Hong Kong in 2008. It includes a short quiz that demonstrates how hard it is to spot the use of biology for hostile purposes. It looks at some of the problems with trying to secure biology through top-down governmental approaches and the need to find a community-based response to this shared problem.

"Biology should be more fun. It should be about exploring the world around us. We should want to get out there and do things. We should be able to do things more easily. Securing biology should be something that helps us do that. It cannot be something that gets in the way."

Scientific research continues to bring us new and unexpected knowledge, technologies and approaches. Synthetic biology, with its questioning of what is possible, could bring exciting opportunities for health, wealth and better living. But science and technology can be used for destructive purposes as well as for constructive ones. Refining our control of biology opens up chances to intentionally cause harm to humans, animals, plants and the environment that just did not exist before. That’s why it is important now, more than ever, for us to think about how others might use what we are doing in ways we would not be happy with.

Preventing Malign Use

Securing biology is not a simple task. It is not something those outside biology could, or should, do alone. Equally, this is not something that biologists can do by themselves (our focus, as the name implies is on the biology). This is a truly interdisciplinary problem - one that means we will need to work together, in new ways, with new partners, to find an approach that provides benefits for all. Given the interdisciplinary nature of synthetic biology, and the experience the community has in drawing in people from different backgrounds, we are well placed to position ourselves in the vanguard of those thinking about how science interacts with society and to help write the rules which will govern this ‘century of biology’.

As a participant in iGEM, there are three things you can do right now to help us secure our science:

  1. Fully answer the safety questions that demonstrates that you have thought about how others could misuse your work
  2. Contribute to community discussions on what needs to go into a code against the use of our science for hostile purposes (see A Community Response)
  3. Look into what security provisions, such as laws and regulations, are already in place in your country (see Working within the Law)

Key Biosecurity Resources

Here you will find some important resource material to think about how security issues relates to your project, iGEM and modern biology.

World Health Organization, Biorisk Management - Laboratory Biosecurity Guidance World Health Organization, Responsible Life Science Research for Global Health Security National Research Council, Understanding Biosecurity

Security in Practice

Ensuring that biology is used safely, securely and constructively should be of concern to us all. This is a challenge we will have to face together. To do this we will need to figure out what we want biological engineering to look like, what we are prepared for others to do with it, and just how we want to tackle security issues. This page provides a space to focus on these issues and for you to help shape what should be done to stop those with a malign intent. There is a real opportunity here for iGEM and those participating in iGEM, not only to shape how they will deal with security issues but to drive their national and even international processes. You can make a real difference in securing biology – in your lab, in your country and across the world.

Here are a few examples of the sorts of projects and approaches that might help you deal with these issues:

Thinking about security implications: Reconstruction of the 1918 Influenza Viruses

The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed in excess of 50 million people around the world. Understanding why the responsible virus was so dangerous is an important public health goal. Bringing back such a voracious killer also poses various safety and security concerns. When Science published details of how this virus was reconstructed, they published in the same edition an editorial and an opinion piece exampling the relatives risks and benefits as well as their rationale for publishing the work.

Tumpey et al, Characterization of the Reconstructed 1918 Spanish Influenza, Science, 310 (5745), 7 October 2005 Kaiser, Resurrected Influenza Virus Yields Secrets of Deadly 1918 Pandemic, Science, 310 (5745), 7 October 2005 Sharp, 1918 Flu and Responsible Science, Science, 310 (5745), 7 October 2005

This case study demonstrates that addressing security concerns might not mean not doing work but rather thinking around what the implications of the work might be and publishing the details in a well considered way. Demonstrating that security implications have been considered can be as important as thinking about them in the first place.

A security related iGEM project: VT-ENSIMAG Biosecurity 2010

The VT-ENSIMAG Biosecurity team from 2010 focused their efforts on a security related bioinformatics project. They succeeded in creating screening software to identify uniquely related to agents of concern (pathogens and toxins). The team then used the screening software to show that virtually no parts in the registry came from such agents. The single part that was identified had already been clearly labelled as coming from a pathogen. This project demonstrated that security and science can be mutually beneficial and how effectively iGEM has engaged in these areas. For their work, VT-ENSIMAG Biosecurity won a special award in safety and security.

A security related human practices project: PKU Beijing 2009

The PKU Beijing team in 2009, as its human practices project, conducted a survey of 17 biotech supply companies to see if they would deliver a variety of laboratory resources to a domestic address. The PKU Beijing team in 2009, as its human practices project, conducted a survey of 17 biotech supply companies to see if they would deliver a variety of laboratory resources to a domestic address. The team discovered that many of the companies they contacted would complete their orders. As a result, PKU Beijing 2009 made a series of suggestions on how regulators, companies and the community might work together to enable exciting science whilst minimizing associated risks. These suggestions where then forwarded to the relevant authorities in their own country for further consideration.

A Commitment to Do No harm

There is a strong feeling amongst those involved with iGEM, as well as the broader synthetic biology community, that the work we do should be used only for the benefit of humankind. It should not be used to do harm or to make weapons. This understanding has prompted some to think about what the community can do to ensure that this never happens. One important step could be a code or personal declaration that everyone involved (from the organisers, through supervisors and advisors, to team members and even the mascots!) would commit themselves to. Such a code could help ensure that we think about security as something that does directly involve us, is part of our project and can be dealt with in a way that helps us to get on and have some fun engineering biology.

Our Community Response

What should be in a code?:
  • A reminder of the importance of personal responsibility and that as your career progresses so do your responsibilities?
  • A recognition that our personal benign intent is not enough?
  • A commitment to get informed about principles and practices designed to prevent hostile use?
  • A commitment to find out about and comply with regulatory frameworks, such as international, national and institutional laws and guidelines?
  • A requirement to look at the reasonably foreseeable consequences of your activities
  • A promise not to ignore dubious actions by others
  • An obligation to act responsibly in case you stumble across something that does not easily sit with the aims of the code
  • Some link between the pursuit of science and the best interests of the society in which it is pursued
Codes have been around for sometime in science and engineering. Some seek to inspire, some educate, and others regulate. There is a solid body of work dedicated to the sorts of things that might be included in such an effort (see the Resources section). But nothing should be taken for granted – the content of our code would be up to us to decide. Here are some of the areas that a code might cover. Are these accurate? Can you think of anything else that should be on this list? Is there too much and we should get rid of some (if so, what)? Is there any point to working on a code? Here is where you can get involved – we are hoping that you will have something to say. You can answer these questions or add anything else you want to say (you know the drill) in the comments section below.

Working Within the Law

There is an international treaty that prohibits the use of biology for hostile or malign purposes. If you intend to use biology to do harm you will be breaking international law.

Many countries also have their own laws about using biology in this way. They are increasingly backed up with regulations and guidelines that are relevant to the day to day functioning of a laboratory. It is important that we are all familiar with the rules that cover our work. Whilst we are commonly taught how we should work safely, we are less often taught how to work securely.

This section provides a gateway to details of some of these national regulatory frameworks. We hoping that you will use this to make sure you know all you need to know about staying out of trouble. But we are hoping that you will also be able to help us improve this resource. We have provided some information on some of the measures in some of the countries with the largest participation in iGEM. We know this is not a list of all relevant measures in all countries that participate. Here is where you come in. Is there something missing you know applies in your country? If so why not add some information? If you don't know what is in place, why not find out and let us know? That would really help future teams, your professional conduct and the community as a whole.

United Kingdom
United States
International Overview

Got Questions?

If there is anything here that has caught your interest, infuriated you and sparked any other reason you would like to get in touch, then please do. You can leave comments, thoughts and suggestions below but also feel free to contact us directly if you want something a little more interactive.

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