Boston and Northern Virginia/Washington Chapters of IEEE Computer Society, Northern Virginia/Washington/Baltimore Chapter of IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, and GBC/ACM

6:30 PM, Wednesday, 7 June 2023

MIT Room 32-G449 (Kiva) and online via Zoom

Securing global DNA synthesis without disclosing information hazards

Kevin Esvelt

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Printing custom DNA sequences is essential to scientific and biomedical research, but the technology can be used to build plagues as well as cures. Just as ink printers recognize and reject attempts to counterfeit money, DNA synthesizers and assemblers should deny requests to make viral DNA that could be used to ignite another pandemic. There are three complications. First, we don't need to update printers to deal with newly discovered currencies, whereas we’ll constantly learn of new viruses and other biological threats. Second, anti-counterfeiting specifications on a local printer can’t be extracted and used to help terrorists – unlike DNA blueprints for hazards. Third, a list of all the DNA orders placed by a biotech company could paint a detailed portrait of its R&D program, so any screening system must protect the privacy of each customer’s orders as reliably as their banks safeguards their finances. Cryptography, the foundation of modern computer security, can do the same for synthesis screening. We will discuss SecureDNA, an internationally developed and fully automated system capable of securely screening all DNA synthesis that will be made freely available by the end of 2023.


Kevin Esvelt is Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, NEC Career Development Professor of Computer and Communications and director of the Sculpting Evolution group at the MIT Media Lab. His group invents new ways to study and influence the evolution of ecosystems.

He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University for inventing a synthetic microbial ecosystem to rapidly evolve useful biomolecules, and subsequently helped pioneer the development of CRISPR, a powerful new method of genome engineering.

In 2013, Esvelt was the first to identify the potential for CRISPR “gene drive” systems to alter wild populations of organisms. Recognizing the implications of an advance that could enable individual scientists to alter the shared environment, he and his colleagues chose to break with scientific tradition by revealing their findings and calling for open discussion and safeguards before building the first CRISPR-based gene drive system and demonstrating reversibility in the laboratory.

An outspoken advocate of sharing research plans to accelerate discovery and improve safety, Esvelt's MIT lab seeks to accelerate beneficial advances while safeguarding biotechnology against mistrust and misuse. Projects include building catalytic platforms for directed evolution, pioneering new ways of developing ecotechnologies with the guidance of local communities, developing early-warning systems to reliably detect any catastrophic biological threat, applying cryptographic methods to enable secure and universal DNA synthesis screening, and advising policymakers on how best to mitigate global catastrophic biorisks.

His work has been published in Nature and Science, covered by the New York Times and Washington Post, and featured on Last Week Tonight and the Netflix special Unnatural Selection.

This joint meeting of the Boston Chapter of the IEEE Computer Society and GBC/ACM will be hybrid (in person and online), part of getting back to normal after the COVID-19 lockdown.

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