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Intelligence Agency Wants to Keep ‘Novel Organisms’ From Threatening Humans

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The same technology that helps scientists sequence genes could also help them create “novel organisms" that could be used to attack humans and the environment, according to one intelligence agency.

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, the intelligence community’s R&D arm, wants businesses to showcase technology that could prevent new biotechnology, such as DNA synthesis, from being exploited. At the end of this month, IARPA is hosting a Proposers’ Day in advance of a new solicitation for its Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats, or “Fun GCAT" program. 

New biological research on gene sequencing, synthesis and analysis “are likely to enable revolutionary advances in medicine, agriculture and materials,” IARPA's posting says -- but they also "have intensified security concerns around the accidental or deliberate misuse of biotechnologies.”

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The potential that researchers could synthesize “novel organisms” from genetic material is a “special concern,” the posting said. Today, researchers aren’t screening DNA synthesis for the risks it might pose to humans and the environment, according to IARPA. To remedy this, the Fun GCAT program aims to assess “the threat potential of unknown genes.”

The ultimate goal is to create screening systems that can "prevent accidental or deliberate health hazards to humans and agricultural assets.”

Eventually, the program aims to use computational systems that can “predict structure and functions of unknown genes,” or create models of the risk that certain gene functions might present.

Nextgov has requested comment from IARPA.

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