Report: Synthetic biology could be misused to create weapons

Thursday, 21 June, 2018

Report: Synthetic biology could be misused to create weapons

Synthetic biology expands the possibilities for creating new weapons — including making existing bacteria and viruses more harmful — while decreasing the time required to engineer such organisms.

That’s according to a new report from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (US), which claims that although some malicious applications of synthetic biology may not seem plausible right now, they could become achievable with future advances.

Synthetic biology, a field that creates technologies for engineering or creating organisms, is being used for a variety of purposes that benefit society, including treating diseases, improving agricultural yields and remediating pollution. However, with the potential for misuse to threaten both citizens and military personnel, the National Academies were asked by the US Department of Defense (DOD) to develop a framework for evaluating security concerns related to advances in synthetic biology. The task included assessing the levels of concern warranted for such advances and recommending potential options to anticipate and respond to such threats.

The study was conducted by a committee chaired by Michael Imperiale, a professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Michigan, who noted, “In and of itself, synthetic biology is not harmful. The level of concern depends on the specific applications or capabilities that it may enable.”

In its interim report, the committee proposed a strategic framework to identify and prioritise potential areas of concern associated with the field and to help biodefence analysts as they consider current and future synthetic biology capabilities. In the final report, the committee used this framework to analyse potential vulnerabilities enabled by synthetic biology.

The report emphasises that many of the traditional approaches of biological and chemical defence will be relevant to synthetic biology-enabled threats, but the field will also present new challenges. DOD and its partners should continue to explore strategies that can be applied to a wide range of threats and also to account for broader capabilities enabled by the field now and in the future. Since synthetic biology-enabled weapons might be unpredictable and hard to monitor or detect, DOD should consider evaluating how the public health infrastructure needs to be strengthened to adequately recognise a potential attack.

“It’s impossible to predict when specific enabling developments will occur; the timelines would depend on commercial developments as well as academic research, and even converging technologies that may come from outside this field,” said Imperiale. “So it is important to continue monitoring advances in synthetic biology and other technologies that may affect current bottlenecks and barriers, opening up more possibilities.”

To view the report, click here.

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