Custom-made genes in developing countries



I thought I would open my first posting by updating something I published a while back, in my own blog, on one of the less obvious problems of being a developing country scientist.

The obvious things? Oh, not enough funding; no local agents for expensive capital equipment; long and sometimes erratic supply chains; higher prices for commonplace lab supplies – all well known, and something we live with every day and have learned to deal with.

The less obvious? Try bumping up against an orchestrated policy of not allowing developing countries to order custom-made genes that appear on what seems to be an ever-growing list of proscribed agents – or dealing with journals that ask all sorts of alarming questions about the bug you are attempting to publish something on.

Around two years ago I was moved to write a piece on my teaching blog, ViroBlogy, about the inequity that had suddenly developed in the synthetic DNA arena. This had followed the publication of two articles in the Nature stable; this one here by Erika Check Hayden, and one here by Ali Noury and Christopher Chyba. Both articles had made the apparently quite reasonable point that:

“the way that the industry screens orders for hazardous toxins and genes, such as pieces of deadly viruses and bacteria…could be crucial for global biosecurity.”

At the time, I wrote:

Yes. Well. They would say that, wouldn’t they?? “They” being anyone in the developed world who has a paranoid fantasy about bearded extremists in caves (or crew-cut extremists in leafy suburbs) gleefully unwrapping their couriered DNA and brewing up a nice little necrotising poxvirus, or an airborne Ebola, or possibly an H5N1 variant that spreads human-to-human better than the present versions.

I wrote the following comment to the Check article, published online:

While “all right-thinking people” – for which, read “those easily scared by the unrealistic prospect of mail-order killer bugs” may agree that some kind of limitations are required on what synthetic DNA is sent out, and to whom…there is a baby being thrown out with the bathwater here.

My laboratory has just, despite many previously successful orders from the same company, been denied permission (or told to obtain clearance from the relevant government, which amounts to the same thing) to have a coat protein gene synthesised for a bluetongue virus (BTV) strain now found all over western Europe. Because, apparently, BTV is on the Australia Group prohibited list of biological agents – and South Africa is not a signatory to this group, which started out for arms control but has apparently ramified somewhat.


The ways of limiting spread of genes that are being proposed are first, unnecessary; second – discriminatory in the extreme.

And may just provide a good deal of business for firms operating in developing countries who otherwise would have been ignored because of quality issues. Imagine that: a lab in Pakistan, or South Africa, or Indonesia, using home-made genes to make a vaccine.

Because that is a LOT more likely than using them to make a pathogen.

So DO let’s keep things in perspective, shall we?? And let reputable labs doing reputable work order the materials they need to work with.

And what would I say now, two years later? Pretty much the same thing, sadly. Despite contact with one of the companies named in Check’s article, during which they tried to reassure me that “reputable laboratories” would not be much inconvenienced, the policy remains a large, blunt object with very little flexibility. It also remains discriminatory. Sadly, however, our science in the developing world is not important enough to force it to change.

There is hope, however: a year or more ago, George Church was quoted as saying that the cost of DNA synthesis was falling as quickly as DNA sequencing – at around a factor of 10 a year. This means that the technology will probably outstrip policy pretty soon, and the genie will be well and truly out of the bottle – and in the developing world. Making DNA for us poor people, to do things like make vaccines that affect developing countries only.

Bring it on…!

Ed Rybicki

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