It is a late night at the top-secret National Biotech Laboratories in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The cleaning crew is mopping up, a security guard is patrolling, and Dr. Derrick Benson’s desk light is the only illumination on the infectious diseases floor.
It’s still Dr. Benson, but it should be Director Benson. Unfortunately, Dan Smiley had the right political connections, and Benson is in virtual Siberia because he was seen at a Take Back America rally. Dr. Benson is mad as hell, and he’s getting even ... with a nice little dose of smallpox in a letter to Smiley. Oh, it’s a tiny dose and it won’t kill him. At least it probably won’t ...
Dr. Benson and Dan Smiley are fictional characters. The above fantasy, at least for now, belongs in a network television melodrama. But some scientists believe a scenario like this might loom not too far in the future—and our government has some catching up to do to prevent it.
Now that modern science, working at the nano-scale, has found a way to create new forms of life and recreate old ones, we can’t be sure that yesterday’s scourges won’t be back, and in lethal hands. An emerging field known as “synthetic biology,” which holds great promise of medical advances, has also added a new entry into the playbook of potential terrorists.
Smallpox is one of the few killer viruses we’ve actually eradicated, yet it lives on in government labs in the U.S. and Russia. And thanks to synthetic biology, it may eventually be possible for rogue Ph.Ds to actually recreate smallpox or other viruses. And then, in league with terrorists or acting on their own, unleash them.
There’s always been a danger that deadly biological agents could be used as weapons, though it is perhaps exaggerated by popular television shows like 24 (which frequently puts biological weapons in the hands of terrorists bent on mass destruction). In reality, incidents involving biological agents have killed fewer than 100 people since 1970. Still, the rapid progress of synthetic biology re-ignites fears that smallpox or other long-quarantined killers could once more stalk human populations.
In a presentation last year… Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders of the European Union Institute for Security Studies said that the capabilities of synthetic biology “offer a new dimension to the debate” when assessing the terrorist threat from biological agents. The gravest threat, he said, is from rogue individuals with access to high-security biological labs.
Lest that seem like a page out of a television melodrama, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, has the tightest security in the U.S. (Biosafety IV), and yet it housed Dr. Bruce E. Ivins, the scientist suspected of unleashing the deadly strains of anthrax that killed five people after the 9/11 attacks.
We could perhaps take comfort from the fact that the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention bans the production of “microbial or other biological agents, or toxins…that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.” But terrorists are unlikely to be given pause by international treaties.
Synthetic biology offers promise as well as peril—it envisions that we can redesign natural biological systems and make them more efficient, and build living machines from common chemical ingredients. Living machines could have many practical applications. Scientists are dreaming of tiny bio-engineered organisms that can produce medicines (combating malaria is an early application), attack cancer cells and pollutants, and even produce hydrogen for the vehicles of tomorrow.
The field is still evolving. The first synthetic biology conference was held at MIT in 2004. Much research is university-based in the U.S., Japan, Israel and Europe, but there are also several private companies, including Synthetic Genomics and Amyris Biotechnologies.
The genetics pioneer J. Craig Venter (who famously sequenced the human genome) has brought both venture capital and government money into companies that can—and do—patent synthetic biological forms. “We’ve been digitizing biology,” he said at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference in 2008. “And now we’re trying to go from that digital code to a new phase of biology with designing and synthesizing life.”
The discipline known as synthetic genomics aims to artificially recreate specific genes or genomes from synthetic, chemically produced DNA. For instance, scientists believe they will soon be able to recreate virtually any virus by replicating their complete DNA sequence. The price for synthetic DNA is dropping rapidly and could soon reach only 10 cents per base pair (from $10 as recently as 2000), making commercial uses more practical.
Acquisition of closely guarded deadly viruses is beyond the capability of most terrorist groups today, but commercial uses will disperse enabling technology into the broader scientific community. And beyond. Dr. Zanders says that obtaining pathogens from “bio-hackers” who work at home using lab equipment that is literally available on eBay is a concern. There has been proliferation of high-containment laboratories since 2001, he said, and “a widening base of people with knowledge and skills.”
Dr. Zanders believes the current terrorist threat from synthetic biology is low. But he says scientific guidelines are urgently needed to build awareness and, with input from the scientific community and industry, create early-detection protocols for “deviance and malfeasance,” as well as legal licensing requirements for possession of biological agents.
Although synthetic biology is still “at an early stage of development,” it’s not too soon to think about the potential risks, says Jonathan B. Tucker, a senior fellow specializing in biological and chemical weapons at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
The science of synthetic biology is moving faster than the safety, security, and ethical policies that should guide it. According to the ETC Group’s Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology, “In five to 10 years simple bacterial genomes will be synthesized routinely and it will become no big deal to cobble together a designer genome, insert it into an empty bacterial cell and—voilà—give birth to a living, self-replicating organism.”
Tucker notes that the European Union has embraced the “precautionary principle,” which provides that synthetic chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be proven safe before their widespread dispersal into commerce. But the United States stands the principle on its head and outlaws only chemicals and GMOs that have been shown to cause harm. Indeed, Dr. Zanders told me in an email that his report on potential terrorist threats associated with the misuse of synthetic biology was an example of the European Commission using the precautionary principle to screen scientific proposals against such perils.
Tucker contends that the hypothetical misuse of synthetic biology to create artificial disease agents more lethal than those that exist in nature is “probably exaggerated.” A far more likely scenario, he said, would be for outlaw states or sophisticated terrorist groups to synthesize known pathogenic viruses that are difficult to isolate from natural sources, whose animal reservoirs are unknown, or that have become extinct or eradicated. This feat was already accomplished in 2005 for the Spanish influenza virus, which caused a global pandemic in 1918-19 that killed more than 20 million people. Scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta recreated the extinct influenza virus from scratch in order to understand the genetic factors that made this particular strain so lethal in young, healthy individuals. The CDC is one of several research centers around the United States that have maximum-containment (Biosafety Level 4) laboratories where scientists, encapsulated in plastic “space suits” with independent air supplies, work with the most deadly and incurable viruses.
Particularly worrisome is the possibility that as gene-synthesis technology progresses, it will soon become technically feasible to recreate the smallpox (variola) virus, which was eradicated from nature in the late 1970s by a global vaccination campaign and now exists only in a few highly secure repositories. The smallpox virus is at the top of the list of microbial threat agents of bioterrorism concern.
Tucker agrees with Dr. Zanders that life scientists with an ideological or personal grievance could pose a threat because they have both the skills and the motivation to exploit synthetic biology for harmful purposes. For example, Dr. Bruce Ivins, the FBI’s prime suspect in the 2001 anthrax letter mailings, was an anthrax expert who had all the security clearances needed to work at the U.S. Army’s premier biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Such individuals may be hard to detect with routine personal-reliability measures. “Scientists tend to be a bit eccentric,” Tucker said. “And it can sometimes be difficult to draw the line between harmless eccentricity and dangerous psychopathology.”
Mainstream science is getting concerned. “If ever there were a science guaranteed to cause public alarm and outrage, this is it,” says Phillip Ball, a consulting editor at the prestigious journal Nature. “Compared with conventional biotechnology and genetic engineering, the risks involved in synthetic biology are far scarier.”
Terrorism isn’t the only potential problem posed by synthetic biology, of course. We could be giving birth to organisms that, if released into the environment, will behave in ways far beyond those intended. So far synthetic biology experiments have taken place under carefully controlled conditions, but commercial applications—such as toxic cleanups—obviously envision the routine use of synthesized agents.
In a special 2005 issue, the science journal Nature concluded, “Unfortunately, our ability to quickly and reliably engineer biological systems that behave as expected remains quite limited.” The magazine uncharacteristically created a comic book, “Adventures in Synthetic Biology,” that went with the special issue and imagined a junior scientist reprogramming some bacteria to see what happens, only to have it grow to enormous size and then explode. “Hmm,” the young scientist says, “I better learn more about what I’m doing before I try anything else!” His mentor replies, “Gee, you think?”
In response to these concerns, synthetic biology security is at least getting an airing in the U.S., though no legislation has passed. Experts from the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), the Center for Strategic & International Studies and MIT, with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, released a report, “Synthetic Genomics: Options for Governance,” in 2007. Firms that supply synthetic DNA could, for example, be required to use special software to screen out malicious orders. Owners of DNA synthesizers could be required to register their machines. And university courses could address risks.
“Designing ways to impede malicious uses of the technology while at the same time not impeding, or even promoting beneficial ones, poses a number of policy challenges for all who wish to use or benefit from synthetic genomics,” said Michele Garfinkel, policy analyst at JCVI and lead author of the report.
The rush to develop artificial life has created some heady moments and scientific breakthroughs. But triumph could turn into a nightmare straight out of Stephen King’s The Stand without adequate safeguards—and international embrace of the precautionary principle for artificially created life.
Adventures in Synthetic Biology, Nature comic book, www.nature.com/nature/comics/syntheticbiologycomic/index.html
Synthetic Biology: Addressing the Risk of Terrorist Application by Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, EU Institute for Security Studies, posted at http://ec.europa.eu/european_group_ethics/activities/docs/jp_zanders.pdf
The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology, by Jonathan B. Tucker and Raymond A. Zilinskas, New Atlantis, www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-promise-and-perils-of-synthetic-biology