FBI Synthetic Biology Training

FBI Training Objectives

For one week in May, we hosted 11 agents and analysts from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation for an intensive synthetic biology training program. The goal of this event was to give the law enforcement personnel foundational knowledge and insight into the rapidly evolving field of synthetic biology.

At first glance, a relationship between synthetic biology and the nation’s top law enforcement agency might seem incongruous. Consider, though, the rapid development of genetic engineering techniques over the last several years. The agents who visited campus were part of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, whose purview includes preventing and responding to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents.

“The WMD Directorate is working to build relationships with universities and industry partners. It needs to stay current on trends in biological research – from the manufacture of living organism-based vaccines, to the synthesis of new genes in the lab.”, said William So, Policy and Program Specialist with the FBI’s WMD directorate’s Biological Countermeasures Unit.

The emergence of big data within the life sciences and the digitized stores of data that could be vulnerable to cyber-attacks has also pushed the agency to become better versed in these areas. Ultimately, the FBI mission includes protecting such systems against terrorism, espionage, or the leaking of proprietary information.

“The amount of research and information in the biotechnology fields is increasing exponentially,” So said. “It’s important for us to have hands-on experience to understand better how biological experimentation occurs.”

Synthetic Biology Training Curriculum

This training was the first of its kind at CSU; we previously led a scaled-down pilot workshop at Virginia Tech. The CSU workshop consisted of lectures on research trends by Peccoud and other CSU experts. It also included blocks of lab time for training participants to perform typical synthetic biology techniques. For example, the trainees used Gibson Assembly to make DNA and transfer it to E. coli cells for manufacturing insulin. Neil Adames, a research scientist in my group,  led the experimental work.

This experiment gave the participants insight into a foundational method of producing biologic drugs within the pharmaceutical industry. It illustrated the aspirations of both scientists and “DIYBio” communities to engineer genes with powerful new properties.

Our motivation here is to help people working in the field to critically analyze the information they are getting about breakthroughs and trends in biological engineering and research. It is one thing to talk to scientists at conferences or read papers, but it is another to get hands-on training and to have an understanding of what certain concepts mean in practice.

Other activities included a talk about CRISPR and genome editing by University Distinguished Professor Jan Leach; a visit to the biochemistry protein purification facility; a tour of BioMARC, the university’s biologics manufacturing research facility; an overview of CSU’s biosafety policies led by Bob Ellis of the Office of the Vice President for Research. We ended the synthetic biology training program by meeting representatives of the local DIYBio community at Denver Biolabs.

If you are interested in organizing this synthetic biology training for your organization, please contact us.

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