Computer Science and Engineering, Department of


First Advisor

Myra B. Cohen

Second Advisor

Brittany A. Duncan

Date of this Version


Document Type



Firestone, Justin (2020). Application of Software Engineering Principles to Synthetic Biology and Emerging Regulatory Concerns [Doctoral dissertation, University of Nebraska-Lincoln]. UNL Digital Commons.


A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: Computer Science, Under the Supervision of Professors Myra B. Cohen and Brittany A. Duncan. Lincoln, Nebraska : August, 2020

Copyright 2020 Justin Firestone


As the science of synthetic biology matures, engineers have begun to deliver real-world applications which are the beginning of what could radically transform our lives. Recent progress indicates synthetic biology will produce transformative breakthroughs. Examples include: 1) synthesizing chemicals for medicines which are expensive and difficult to produce; 2) producing protein alternatives; 3) altering genomes to combat deadly diseases; 4) killing antibiotic-resistant pathogens; and 5) speeding up vaccine production.

Although synthetic biology promises great benefits, many stakeholders have expressed concerns over safety and security risks from creating biological behavior never seen before in nature. As with any emerging technology, there is the risk of malicious use known as the dual-use problem. The technology is becoming democratized and de-skilled, and people in do-it-yourself communities can tinker with genetic code, similar to how programming has become prevalent through the ease of using macros in spreadsheets. While easy to program, it may be non-trivial to validate novel biological behavior. Nevertheless, we must be able to certify synthetically engineered organisms behave as expected, and be confident they will not harm natural life or the environment.

Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary engineering domain, and interdisciplinary problems require interdisciplinary solutions. Using an interdisciplinary approach, this dissertation lays foundations for verifying, validating, and certifying safety and security of synthetic biology applications through traditional software engineering concepts about safety, security, and reliability of systems. These techniques can help stakeholders navigate what is currently a confusing regulatory process.

The contributions of this dissertation are: 1) creation of domain-specific patterns to help synthetic biologists develop assurance cases using evidence and arguments to validate safety and security of designs; 2) application of software product lines and feature models to the modular DNA parts of synthetic biology commonly known as BioBricks, making it easier to find safety features during design; 3) a technique for analyzing DNA sequence motifs to help characterize proteins as toxins or non-toxins; 4) a legal investigation regarding what makes regulating synthetic biology challenging; and 5) a repeatable workflow for leveraging safety and security artifacts to develop assurance cases for synthetic biology systems.

Advisers: Myra B. Cohen and Brittany A. Duncan