TLDR: The Nucleic Acid Observatory project aims to protect the world from catastrophic biothreats by detecting novel agents spreading in the human population or environment. We are developing the experimental tools, computational approaches, and hands-on knowledge needed to achieve reliable early detection of any future outbreak. We are hiring for research and support roles.
The catastrophic potential of biological threats lies in their ability to self-replicate and spread from host to host, allowing isolated spillover events to develop into devastating pandemics. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the destructive potential of exponentially growing disease agents. Future pandemics could be far worse, especially if deliberately engineered by humans to cause increased harm.
A corollary of the exponential growth of biological threats is that early detection of outbreaks can be immensely valuable. When a threat can spread exponentially, early detection and response requires exponentially fewer resources to achieve containment and eradication. Had governments acted a few weeks earlier, SARS-CoV-2 may have been excluded from many more countries or even eradicated before becoming a global pandemic. In future outbreaks, a difference of a few doubling times could make the difference between successful containment and global catastrophe.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, recent years have seen enormous interest in technologies for rapid diagnosis and outbreak detection. However, most of this work is centered around sensitively detecting specific known pathogens – especially SARS-CoV-2. Most common monitoring techniques are only able to detect the presence of biological signatures specified in advance; they can’t spot things we aren’t already looking for. To achieve reliable early detection of novel catastrophic biothreats, we need to do better.
The Nucleic Acid Observatory project, currently part of the Sculpting Evolution group at the MIT Media Lab, aims to solve one key piece of this early-detection puzzle. By collecting wastewater and other environmental samples at airports and other sites, performing unbiased metagenomic sequencing, and analyzing the resulting data with novel pathogen-agnostic detection algorithms, our goal is to achieve reliable early detection of any biological threat.
At present, our priority is to develop the technical tools, practical expertise, and partnerships required to implement effective metagenomic biomonitoring on the ground. To that end, we are developing experimental tools and protocols to investigate the sensitivity of different sampling approaches and sites; investigating computational approaches to agnostically identify threat signatures in metagenomic data; and reaching out to a number of potential sites about on-the-ground pilot studies. We aim to begin field trials by autumn 2022.
We are a small team, but well-funded and growing rapidly. Right now, we are especially excited to hire full-time technical researchers and wet-lab support staff; we expect to open more positions in the near future. You can see our open positions and apply here.