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It’s time to talk cyberbiosecurity

Biotechnology companies are being encouraged to increase their awareness of the threats posed by cyberbiosecurity.

Innovators Magazine caught up with Professor Jean Peccoud, Abell Chair in synthetic biology at Colorado State University, to find out why…

  • Can you give me an overview of the emerging field of cyberbiosecurity 

The field is so new that its boundaries are very much in flux. Some people would include standard cybersecurity or physical security of life science facilities. Others tend to include cybersecurity of clinical data or human genomics database in this area. People like the sound bite and often associate it with a number of other existing fields. Personally, I have a DNA-centric notion of this field. I am focused on understanding how can DNA synthesis, DNA sequencing, and bioinformatics create new vulnerabilities and new risk management strategies.  


  • What are the risks and opportunities in the digitisation of DNA? 

Keeping the digitisation of personal genomics data aside, as this a different issue – in biotechnology, the main risk is that we don’t really understand the implications of this trend. As biologists, we still associate DNA with a natural molecule carrying the genetic information of living organisms. Its digital representation is just a convenience to help work with the natural organisms. This is not unlike the early days of software when computer programs were bundled with computing hardware. You can think of digital DNA as software inspired by natural DNA, like computer programs are somewhat reminiscent of natural languages. This analogy with the evolution of software radically changes perspective. Digital DNA becomes man-made. It becomes the expression of an intent. It becomes more valuable than the biological samples that inspired it. That’s the opportunity.   


  • What do you feel are the key issues that biologists should be aware of? 

Biologists need to develop a culture of security in their labs. Most of us are incredibly naïve when we walk into our labs. Biological processes have a mind of their own. They tend to be more complicated, slower, and less reproducible than other fields of engineering. That reality gives biologists a high tolerance for anomalies. In this context, we tend to attribute anomalies to the complexity of biological processes. Without becoming paranoid, we need to learn to consider the possibility that our processes behave in unexpected ways for other reasons than biological complexity. Human errors, accidents, software bugs, or people trying to hurt us can also compromise what we are trying to do in our labs.  


  • What can be done to create the best possible strategy for the future? 

Talking about the issue like we do in this conversation is certainly a step in the right direction. Denial is not a very strong security posture. By discussing these issues, we create an awareness that increases our security.   


  • How can people connect and contribute to the existing work in this area? 

They can reach out to me as we are putting together a centre that will be a forum to exchange on these issues.  


Check out the full article, which includes the three biggest threats and actions Professor Jean Peccoud suggests stakeholders should be aware of, in our special biotechnology edition, available this week to delegates at the annual conference of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) in Glasgow – and online.

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