IARPA’s Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats (Fun GCAT) program is aimed at the creation of a critical new capability to counter potential threats associated with advancements in biotechnology. Synthetic biology and genetic engineering now enable researchers to synthetically create microbes using raw genetic materials or edit DNA to create customized microorganisms.
Such advances can be used to create specialized microbes with a variety of beneficial purposes, such as synthesizing medicines, breaking down environmental contaminants, or improving agricultural yields. However, the same technologies, in very rare cases, can be used to synthesize or alter harmful pathogens to make them more contagious or virulent.
“Biotechnology is more accessible than ever, with internet-accessible products and services enabling advances in numerous industries,” said Battelle Research Leader Dr. Trevor Petrel. “The exponential growth in capability of genetic engineering as well as accessibility to these biological tools requires that we rethink conventional biosecurity to evolve with the rapid pace of technology. Genetic engineering tasks that previously took weeks and considerable skill to accomplish now require less effort, skill, and technical resources.”
Under the Fun GCAT contract, Battelle is developing software to assess the threat potential of genetic sequences. Using predictive algorithms, the software would be able to determine the suspected function of a DNA fragment based solely on its sequence. It would be used to screen DNA sequences to determine whether the sequence is related to any known organisms, predict the function of unknown sequences, and assign a threat level based on the potential for harm. By screening and characterizing genetic sequences before they are synthesized, the software would enable the end user to vastly reduce the risk that biological threats will be created either intentionally or accidentally.
Battelle is working with key industry collaborators including Ginkgo Bioworks, One Codex and Twist Bioscience, companies which currently employ advanced biosecurity practices before creating any product for customers, to incorporate cutting-edge computational approaches into the software tool and to provide insight into the effectiveness and practicality of the solution in real-world settings.
“IARPA’s Fun GCAT program pushes us to expand on innovative techniques in bioinformatics, software engineering and data analytics,” said Principal Investigator Dr. Omar P. Tabbaa. “We’ve assembled top experts from across the biotech industry including statisticians, software developers, biologists and physicists all working on a problem of great societal impact, all working as a team.”
Although currently focused on developing technology to stop the intentional or unintentional creation of biological threats, the team sees potential for applying this experience to other emerging markets, including predictive health and medical countermeasures development.
Every day, the people of Battelle apply science and technology to solving what matters most. At major technology centers and national laboratories around the world, Battelle conducts research and development, designs and manufactures products, and delivers critical services for government and commercial customers. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio since its founding in 1929, Battelle serves the national security, health and life sciences, and energy and environmental industries. For more information, visit www.battelle.org.
About One Codex
One Codex is the leading bioinformatics platform for microbial genomics, supporting taxonomic and functional analysis of metagenomic WGS, 16S, and other sequencing data. We specialize in creating robust, scalable, and secure bioinformatics solutions for metagenomics and microbial genomics, with a strong focus on ease of use. Founded in 2014, the One Codex platform counts thousands of users across leading academic institutions, hospitals, biotechnology companies, and public-sector organizations. To learn more, visit www.onecodex.com.
About Ginkgo Bioworks
Headquartered in Boston, Ginkgo Bioworks uses the most advanced technology on the planet – biology – to grow products instead of manufacturing them. The company’s technology platform is bringing biotechnology into consumer goods markets, enabling fragrance, cosmetic, nutrition, food, agriculture and pharmaceuticals to make better products. For more information, visit www.ginkgobioworks.com.
About Twist Bioscience Corporation
At Twist Bioscience Corporation, we work in service of customers who are changing the world for the better. The faster our customers succeed, the better for all of us, and Twist Bioscience is uniquely positioned to help accelerate their efforts. “We are committed to delivering exceptional products to our customers who are improving health and sustainability,” said Emily M. Leproust, Ph.D., CEO of Twist Bioscience. “We have invested considerable time and resources to support responsible research through our comprehensive biosecurity program to help realize the promise of synthetic biology.” For more information about our products and services, please visit www.twistbioscience.com. Twist Bioscience is on Twitter. Sign up to follow our Twitter feed @TwistBioscience at https://twitter.com/TwistBioscience.
Battelle is an official site sponsor of Global Biodefense.