Guest Speaker: Johns Hopkins’ Gronvall Discusses Synthetic Biology at ECBC

Expert on Synthetic Biology and Health Security leads fourth session of 100th anniversary speaker series

CCDC Chemical Biological Center Public Affairs | August 28th, 2017

Guest Speaker: Johns Hopkins’ Gronvall Discusses Synthetic Biology at ECBC

Gigi Grunvall, Ph.D., senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, discussed synthetic biology and biosecurity at the fourth ECBC 100th Anniversary Speaker Series talk on Aug. 22.

An expert in synthetic biology and biosecurity served as the fourth speaker in the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center’s 100th Anniversary Speaker Series, held on Aug. 22 at Berger Auditorium at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Gigi Gronvall, Ph.D., a senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and visiting faculty at Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, spoke on “Designing Defense: Using Synthetic Biology for National Security.” Her work in synthetic biology focuses on the role of scientists in health security.

As a member of the Threat Reduction Advisory Committee, Gronvall advises the Secretary of Defense on nuclear, chemical, and biological threats. She has also participated in numerous other advisory roles regarding DoD biosecurity and bioterrorism and is the author of the book, “Synthetic Biology: Safety, Security, and Promise.”

In her talk, Gronvall discussed the need to balance research and biosafety, stressing the need for new biosecurity policies and regulations to guard against the potential for deliberate misuse of emerging technologies. For example, a powerful new synthetic biology technology, CRISPR, enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of DNA.

“Synthetic biology doesn’t take away from threats in the biological space – it adds to them, and nobody in the field agrees on what the threat is, making policy responses difficult,” Gronvall said.

Another example of how synthetic biology needs to balance safety with research is during the study of viruses. Researchers recently have been able to recreate some viruses from scratch, such as Ebola or zika, at a relatively low cost. She cited a recent report from Canadian researchers who recreated an extinct horsepox virus that is similar to smallpox, a virus which has been eradicated in humans.

Gronvall added that while there are risks of this technology getting into the wrong hands, it also holds the possibility of curing a host of genetic diseases. In addition, synthetic biology will be at the forefront of transforming our manufacturing industry and create new jobs for the next century.

She pointed out that although synthetic biology was first developed in the U.S., other countries such as China, India, Germany and France, are investing far more money into synthetic biology research and development than the U.S. “It matters that we, as a country, invest in synthetic biology,” Gronvall said.

Synthetic biology also impacts national security, she said. “A strong economy presents opportunities in the world for us to influence relationships for the benefit of the U.S. Those open doors would allow U.S. experts to lead dialogue in the research community on setting ethics and safety standards. Collaboration between researchers in the defense arena will keep the focus on biosecurity.”

The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center (CCDC Chemical Biological Center) is the Army’s principal research and development center for chemical and biological defense technology, engineering and field operations. The Center has achieved major technological advances for the warfighter and for our national defense, with a long and distinguished history of providing the armed forces with quality systems and outstanding customer service. The CCDC Chemical Biological Center is located at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.