Synthetic Genome Raises Biosecurity Concerns

Researchers yesterday announced they had engineered a cell directed by genetic material sequenced entirely by humans, a breakthrough in an area of study that some observers fear could be harnessed for developing biological-weapon agents, the Washington Post reported yesterday (see GSN, Dec. 9, 2009).

The work could someday produce microbes capable of consuming waste or creating fuel material, according to the newspaper.

President Barack Obama yesterday called for the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to "undertake ... a study of the implications of this scientific milestone, as well as other advances that may lie ahead in this field of research."

The development did not appear to increase the threat posed by the emerging field of "synthetic biology," which has long involved splicing and experimenting with genetic instructions, one expert said.

"It does not represent an additional threat for biological weapons," said molecular biologist Paul Keim, who chairs the 17-member National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity, an expert panel that counsels Washington on biological technologies that could be harnessed either for benign uses or for creating weapons (David Brown, Washington Post, May 21).

Meanwhile, the FBI has launched an initiative aimed at educating scientists on the potential security threats posed by synthetic biology, The Scientist reported this month.

Experts in the field have worked to hash out gene sequences capable of making cells follow specific instructions. Security experts fear the technology could eventually enable extremists to build a lethal disease agent from harmless components. Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups have for years sought out biological agents for use in attacks, according to news reports (see GSN, June 3, 2009).

The FBI effort, dubbed the Biological Sciences Outreach Program, aims to inform all participants in biological research of the danger that terrorists could seize upon their innovations to pursue nefarious ends.

The initiative was based on a recommendation of the biosecurity board, which called in a 2008 strategy paper for efforts to brief “stakeholders” on the potential weapon applications of peaceful biological research. The recommendation limited its focus to studies that could reduce the immune system's response to a biological agent or increase a disease material's virulence or contagiousness, but it could eventually be broadened to include other perceived security risks.

Under the program, the FBI is expected to communicate at conferences, seminars and through individual contacts that scientists must consider how their findings could be used to cause harm.

"From the point of view of biosecurity, the FBI is the only game in town right now," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Ed You, who began overseeing the outreach effort in March. "[Scientists] must display that they can do the research safely and securely in partnership with the FBI, or face potential legislation."

Some scientists, though, have expressed concern that authorities could interfere in their work. “I don’t think it’s the FBI’s job to police my laboratory, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea to start engaging early on this stuff,” said Adam Arkin, a biological engineer at the University of California, Berkeley.

“It seems to me we’re a ways off" from synthetic biology posing a significant security threat, said Jay Keasling, another scientist at Berkeley. "If I were a terrorist I would not choose to use biology. It’s easier to fill a truck up with fertilizer than it is to engineer biology,” he said.

It remained unclear how the government could oversee the field without stifling scientific research. "We need your guidance," You told attendees at one recent scientific conference.

The FBI has been working to recruit more biologists, the official noted, adding that the law enforcement and scientific communities could benefit from dialogue.

“I’d like to see our partnership as helping getting (biologists) accustomed to the real world, I suppose you could say, to take them a step away from that proverbial ivory tower" he said (Daniel Grushkin, The Scientist, May 1).

May 21, 2010
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Researchers yesterday announced they had engineered a cell directed by genetic material sequenced entirely by humans, a breakthrough in an area of study that some observers fear could be harnessed for developing biological-weapon agents, the Washington Post reported yesterday (see GSN, Dec. 9, 2009).