Could Synthetic Biology Facilitate Biological Warfare?

Highlighting the possibilities of misuse in order to best prepare for biological attack (image source: Wikipedia)

The use of biological toxins or infectious agents to harm or kill humans in warfare has been reported for centuries. For example, back in the middle-ages, victims of the bubonic plague were used for biological attacks, often by flinging infected corpses and excrement over castle walls using catapults. You could say that biological warfare is more sophisticated now, especially in the light of the recent advances in the synthetic biology field.

Where synthetic biology, a field that creates technologies for engineering or creating organisms, is being used for a variety of purposes that benefit society, concerns have been raised about its potential misuse in the creation of new weapons. A report released by the US National Academy of Sciences at the request of the Department of Defense says that making informed decisions about how to address such concerns requires a realistic assessment of the capabilities that could be misused.

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Michael Imperiale, chair of the report committee, and professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan, said the review used only unclassified information and so has no assessment of which groups, if any, might be pursuing novel biological weapons. “We can’t say how likely any of these scenarios are,” he said. “But we can talk about how feasible they are.”

In the report, the scientists describe how synthetic biology, which gives researchers precision tools to manipulate living organisms, “enhances and expands” opportunities to create bioweapons. “As the power of the technology increases, that brings a general need to scrutinise where harms could come from,” said Peter Carr, a senior scientist at MIT’s Synthetic Biology Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Of the potential capabilities assessed in the report, three were deemed the most concerning:

  1. The re-creation of known pathogenic viruses
  2. Engineering existing bacteria to become more dangerous
  3. Harmful biochemicals being  made via synthesis occurring in the body itself

However concerning the report might sound the whole reason for the report was to highlight the possibilities of misuse in order to best prepare.

The overarching recommendation was concluded to be:

“Biotechnology in the age of synthetic biology expands the landscape of potential defense concerns. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and its partnering agencies should continue to pursue ongoing strategies for chemical and biological defense; these strategies remain relevant in the age of synthetic biology. DoD and its partners also need to have approaches to account for the broader capabilities enabled by synthetic biology, now and into the future.”