Team:Freiburg Bioware/NoteBook/safety


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Availability of molecular biological techniques

The knowledge that is required for the creation of a genetically engineered virus can be easily accessed from all over the world in online gene banks and publication databases and could be potentially be used for a destructive purpose <a href="">20</a>. In 2007 Scott C. Mohr published the first part of his manuscript <a href="">Primer for Synthetic Biology14</a></li>. This open accessible document explaining the basics of molecular engineering addresses people interested in genetics but coming from a non academic background. This development called "garage biology" or "biohacking" is a clear indication for the tendency to have molecular biological knowledge availability in society as it was seen with programming and computer hacking from ~1980 on.

Availability of synthesized DNA

One of the reactions to the publication of the genome sequence of the Spanish flu strain from 1918 was <a href=""> v. Bubnoff; 200525</a></li> who nicely pointed out the lax handling of the new created virus, the ease of availability and the low effort that has to be invested to recreate a virus:

"Scientists in Canada are planning to work with the virus, although they will not request it from the CDC. [...] Reconstructing the live virus from its DNA would then take just a few days, he says.

The advancing price decline in the field of gene synthesis broad several deadly germs into the range of small research projects or even private persons as for example Spanish Flu (Influenza H1N1) with 13.5 kbp <a href=>*</a> or even the Ebola virus with 19 kpb <a href=>*</a>.

The Guardian journalist James Randson ordered in 2006 a 78bp long DNA oligo-nucleotide coding for the Capsid of the smallpox Orthopoxvirus variola with the intention to alert the publicity. <a href="">10</a>
Smallpox are listed as Schedule 5 pathogens in the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001 and are illegal to keep or use without first notifying the civil authorities.
On the other hand is questionable if these prohibitions or perhaps the size of the smallpox genome of ~200kb <a href=>*</a> is sufficient to prevent the de novo synthesis in the future efficiently. His intention to focus the public's attention to the possibility that one of the most severe plagues in the history of mankind could be synthesized and released to the environment, either intentionally or by mistake. This would be especially regrettable because the smallpox's eradiation was celebrated in 1979 by the World Health Organization as one of the greatest victories in the history of medicine <a href=>33</a>.
In order to complicate the unauthorized synthesis of gene sequenced encoding hazardous biological agents, the efforts to implement sequence analyze algorithms into the operating procedure of all organizations and companies that are capable of synthesizing gene sequences.

The implementation should not be on a voluntary basis but as legal binding regulation which's completion should be supervised by the government body on a national level, but effort should also be made to find solutions for an international progress on this issue.
As an first step the development of search algorithms as Craic's BlackWatch<a href=">34</a> should be promoted and refined.

Additional to this sequence base search for possible misuse of gene sequences each order of already existing or synthesized genes could be alight in a first attempt with a list of countries and in a second search with the so called Hadex exclusion list that names people and organizations that are excluded from obtaining dual-use gene material<a href=>1</a>.

The nature of biological weapons - Who is willing to accept their drawbacks

When considering the use of biological means for warfare the potential aggressor has to accept several serious drawbacks. At first biological weapons are not controllable and could potentially harm the own population. When replication potent germs would be used for such a purpose it has also to be taken in account that the germ could mutate and cause serious damage to mankind.
This makes biological warfare unattractive for most nations especially because alternatives are available witch's outcome is more predictable and can easily be focused to military targets with limited collateral damage. This is for sure one of the major reason why the BTWC was signed in 1972. Unfortunately national warfare programs are not the only source of danger when considering biological warfare.

"An increasing number of countries believe that their political and security interests could be protected or achieved only through the possession of such weapons, especially in view of the overwhelming superiority of the US armed forces in terms of conventional weapons."<a href=>22</a>

In Germany it is usually avoided to speak of the "Axis of evil" but it has to be admitted that several countries around the globe are technically capable to develop biological weapons or to support terroristic groups in doing so. When this physical capability meets an ideological attitude that is based on contempt for other concepts of society it cannot be excluded that biological warfare is taken in consideration.

Synthetic Biology vs. Nuclear Research - Consideration in terms of security policy

When considering the history of research the dual-use character of technical innovations has always been present, only the reaction of society to this dual-use character differs from case to case. As an example scientific discoveries in the field of nuclear physics where treated as classified information having a high relevance for the national security as it can nicely be seen in the case of the Manhattan project<a href="">17</a>. Such censorship is not known in life sciences research although there are in some cases influences on the national security.

Another point concerning the danger arising from biological weapons is the absence of methods that can be used to monitor such weapons of mass destruction as nicely pointed out by M.R. Dando. This fact and the increasing world-wide mobility would make it impossible to prevent the spreading of such weapons when once accessible for potential assassins. This height mobility in combination with the possibility to easily start cultures that can then be easily scaled up to produce the desired amount. <h3>Is a revision of basic research necessary in sensitive research fields?

The publication of these dual-use knowledge containing research papers caused several people to call for regulation of dual-use research. In the United States the so called Fink Committee evaluated the possibility that research in life sciences could be used for biological warfare purposed and how this could be avoided.<a href="">1</a>

This committee had two recommendations:

  • To familiarize the researcher community with the dual-use problem in the life sciences.
  • To review experiments of concern. Experiments are of concern if they:
    • render a vaccine ineffective
    • confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics or antiviral agents
    • enhance the virulence of a pathogen or render a nonpathogen virulent
    • increase transmissibility of a pathogen
    • alter the host range of a pathogen
    • enable the evasion of diagnostic/detection tools
    • enable the weaponization of a biological agent or toxin
  • To review publications with a strong dual-use factor
  • To create a National Science Advisory Board
  • To improve the oversight and reduce unauthorized accessibility of hazardous gene material
  • To include the life sciences into the efforts for national security
  • To harmonize the international oversight over dual-use research

The implementation of these recommendations would be desirable, even though they might cause some discomfort for affected scientists.


Concluding all factors mentioned above it is not exaggerated to assume that the possibility exists that a person, organization or state could misuse the fast advancing life sciences for biological warfare. The possibilities and the simplicity of an misapplication of dual-use research will become more and easier the faster the scientific progress will advance.
Therefore it is important to prevent this potential phenomenon before it becomes reality. This is not only the task of a restricted group but a moral obligation for scientists, politicians and everybody related to dual-use research. Especially scientist have to contribute to and lead the continuing discussion on this topic because they know best about their research topic and how it might be misused for hostile purposes.