News Release

New report proposes framework to identify vulnerabilities posed by synthetic biology

A new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine proposes a framework to identify and prioritize potential areas of concern associated with the field

Peer-Reviewed Publication

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

WASHINGTON - Given the possible security vulnerabilities related to developments in synthetic biology - a field that uses technologies to modify or create organisms or biological components - a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine proposes a framework to identify and prioritize potential areas of concern associated with the field. This report is the first in a two-phase study that is examining the changing nature of biodefense threats in the age of synthetic biology, focusing on the degree to which it can be used to create a weapon.

"While biotechnology is being pursued primarily for beneficial and legitimate purposes, there are potential uses that are detrimental to humans, other species, and ecosystems," said Michael Imperiale, professor and associate chair of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan Medical School and chair of the committee that wrote the interim report.

The framework outlined in the report describes a variety of synthetic biology technologies and applications such as genome editing, directed evolution, and automated biological design, and provides a set of questions to guide the assessment of concerns associated with them. The framework also outlines factors under two broad categories - malicious use and mitigation - that the committee identified as important to include when determining the level of concern associated with a particular synthetic biology technology or application. In its final report, the committee will use this framework, revising as needed, as a tool to provide the U.S. Department of Defense with an assessment of the concerns presented by synthetic biology technologies and applications, as well as possibilities for mitigation.


The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit A roster follows.


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Copies of A Proposed Framework for Identifying Potential Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology are available at or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


Division on Earth and Life Studies

Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology

Committee on Strategies for Identifying and Addressing Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology

Michael Imperiale (chair)
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Associate Chair of Microbiology and Immunology
Michigan Medical School
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Patrick Boyle
Head of Design
Ginkgo Bioworks

Peter A. Carr
Senior Scientist
Synthetic Biology Research Program
Lincoln Laboratory
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Douglas Densmore
Associate Professor
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and
Faculty Fellow
Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science and Engineering
Boston University

Diane DiEuliis
Senior Research Fellow
National Defense University
Washington, D.C.

Andrew Ellington
Fraser Professor of Biochemistry
University of Texas

Gigi Kwik Gronvall
Senior Associate
Center for Health Security, and
Visiting Faculty
Bloomberg School of Public Health
Johns Hopkins University

Charles Haas
L.D. Betz Professor of Environmental Engineering and Head
Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering
Drexel University

Joseph Kanabrocki
Associate Vice President for Research Safety and Professor of Microbiology
Biological Sciences Division
University of Chicago

Kara Morgan
Research Leader
Battelle Memorial Institute
Columbus, Ohio

Kristala Jones Prather
Arthur D. Little Professor of Chemical Engineering
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Thomas Slezak
Associate Program Leader
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Livermore, Calif.

Jill Taylor
Faculty Member
Wadsworth School of Laboratory Sciences, and
Wadsworth Center
New York State Department of Health


Marilee Shelton-Davenport
Staff Officer

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