Dr. Aidan Tay was awarded $350,000 for a two-year fellowship by the Australian Office of National Intelligence to detect artificially manipulated genomes for biosecurity applications.

Australia needs protection from biological threats that may endanger human health, disrupt agriculture production, or cause lasting ecosystem harm. These threats can arise from the artificial manipulation of genomes, which may come from the unintentional spread of genetically altered material or the intentional attack on human health through bioterrorism.

To build this protection capability, one of Australia’s national intelligence agencies, the Office of National Intelligence (ONI), developed the National Intelligence Community Research Program. Dr. Aidan Tay is one of 2 recipients funded by this program to develop new methods for detecting integrated foreign genetic elements and small artificial mutations. Aidan will build upon his work at CSIRO which focused on developing methods to detect gene drive elements within a genome. This work will be done in collaboration with Dr. Maciej Maselko, a research group leader at Macquarie University’s Applied Biosciences who focuses on developing genetic biocontrol and population replacement strategies for disease vectors.

If left unchecked, the unintentional spread of genetically altered material could endanger the health and wellbeing of Australians or cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem. To detect these artificially manipulated genomes and thus protect Australia from these threats, Aidan will be leveraging species-specific characteristics of genome sequences that act like the “fingerprint” of an individual, known as a genomic signature. He will also be leveraging the mutation profiles of gene editing technologies (e.g., CRISPR-Cas systems), which are known to be biased since mutations introduced by these technologies are not random.

The ever-decreasing expertise and cost barriers associated with gene editing technologies have made the technology more accessible to people with the intent to cause harm, posing a significant risk to everyone. The software tools Aidan develops for this program will therefore allow the routine and timely detection of artificially manipulated genomes, including those developed by malicious actors. Besides having translational impact within the biosecurity space, the tools developed in this project will also be applicable in health settings for monitoring the integration of viral sequences and the spread of antibiotic resistance amongst bacterial populations.

Although artificial manipulation of genomes with gene editing technologies offer great benefits, the technology could also be used to cause harm. The software tools developed for this program will therefore give us the capacity to detect and respond to these potential biological threats. Together with CSIRO, Macquarie University’s Applied Biosciences and ONI, these tools will help in protecting Australia’s national interests by creating safer and more resilient communities.