Progress and Prospects for a Nucleic Acid Screening Test Set
DNA synthesis companies screen orders to detect controlled sequences with misuse risks. Assessing screening accuracy is challenging owing to the breadth of biological risks and ambiguities in risk definitions. A new paper, published in May 2024, details an International Gene Synthesis Consortium working group’s rationale and process to develop a prototype DNA synthesis screening test dataset, aiming to establish a baseline of screening system accuracy to compare with various screening approaches.

Construction of the prototype test dataset involved four tool developers screening nucleic acid sequences from three taxonomic clusters of controlled organisms (Orbivirus, Francisella tularensis, and Coccidioides). Results were mapped onto predefined, comparable categories, checking for consensus or conflicts. Conflicts were grouped based on gene annotation and resolved through discussion.

The process highlighted several long-standing challenges in DNA synthesis screening, including the qualitative differences in approaches taken by screening tools. The findings highlight the lack of clarity in assessing pathogen sequences with respect to regulatory control language, compounded by scientific uncertainty. The paper illustrates the current degree of consensus and existing challenges using classification statistics and specific examples.

This prototype underscores the necessity of expert-regulator coordination in assessing gene-associated risks, offering a template for creating test sets across all taxonomic groups on international control lists. Expanding the working group would enrich dataset comprehensiveness, enabling a transition from species-focused to function-focused regulatory controls. This sets the foundation for quality control, certification, and improved risk assessment in DNA synthesis screening.