Amateur Biological Research Raises Security Concerns
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
The growing market for preassembled DNA and public access to genetic blueprints for smallpox, Ebola and other diseases have raised concerns that an individual might build a devastating biological threat from scratch, the Wall Street Journal reported today (see GSN, Dec. 24, 2008). http://www.globalsecuritynewswire.org/gsn/nw_20081224_3201.php
(May. 13) - A Hawaii-based microbiologist prepares to inject DNA into plant cells in 2002. Experts worry that amateurs could produce deadly pathogens while conducting biological research on their own (Phil Mislinski/Getty Images).
Synthetic DNA is routinely sought out by professional biologists as well as "biohackers," typically well-intentioned hobbyists who tinker with the genetic material of simple organisms.
However, existing biological material regulations leave open the risk that a skilled amateur could construct a dangerous pathogen, scientists and FBI officials warned in a Nature Biotechnology article published two years ago. "Current government oversight of the DNA-synthesis industry falls short of addressing this unfortunate reality," the article said.
The federal government should require firms that market synthetic DNA to watch for suspicious orders, according to the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. Washington should also mandate that amateur and professional biologists obtain a license before buying DNA, added George Church, a Harvard University genetics professor.
The FBI is attempting to communicate biological security risks to academic institutions and private industry, "particularly in light of the expansion of affordable molecular biology equipment" and genetic data, said a high-level official in the bureau's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate.
One new graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said the threat is being overblown.
Amateur researchers hope to "build a slingshot ... and there are people out there talking about, oh, no, what happens if they move on to nuclear weapons?" said Katherine Aull, who is seeking to further cancer research through work with a transformed E.coli at her apartment (Jeanne Whalen, Wall Street Journal, May 13).