Study Group: Synthetic Biology Could Pose a Major Threat to the United States

By Sonja Jordan

Photo: iStock

Synthetic biology, the field that explores the engineering and creation of organisms not found in the natural world, can benefit society when it comes to healthcare and other fields. But it also poses a threat to the United States, according to a recent study group report released June 19.

“Although the contributions synthetic biology can make … hold great promise, it is also possible to imagine malicious uses that could threaten U.S. citizens and military personnel,” said the report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine titled, “Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology.”

Major threats include the possibility that adversaries or other actors could recreate known pathogenic viruses and bacteria, make existing bacteria viruses more dangerous, or create new pathogens, the report noted.

The study was commissioned by the Defense Department, with the aim of developing a framework to guide an assessment of the security concerns related to advances in synthetic biology, evaluate the levels of concern warranted for such advances and identify options to mitigate threats.

“Many of the traditional approaches to biological and chemical defense preparedness will be relevant to synthetic biology, but synthetic biology will also present new challenges,” the study group said.

“The DoD and partner agencies will need approaches to biological and chemical weapons defense that meet these new challenges.”

Nimble strategies are needed because of the fast pace of technological change. The Pentagon and other agencies must be able to adapt to a wide range of potential threats because of uncertainty about which approaches an enemy might pursue, the report noted.

“The potential unpredictability related to how a synthetic biology–enabled weapon could manifest creates an added challenge to monitoring and detection,” the report said. “The DoD and its partners should evaluate the national military and civilian infrastructure that informs population-based surveillance, identification and notification of both natural and purposeful health threats.”

The study group recommended that government officials consider whether and how the public health infrastructure needs to be strengthened to support responsive and adaptive management as technology advances.

The U.S. government, in conjunction with the scientific community, should consider approaches that manage emerging risk better than current agent-based lists and
access control approaches, the study group said.

“Strategies based on lists, such as the Federal Select Agent Program Select Agents and Toxins list, will be insufficient for managing risks arising from the application of synthetic biology,” the report said. “While measures to control access to physical materials such as synthetic nucleic acids and microbial strains have merits, such approaches will not be effective in mitigating all types of synthetic biology–enabled attacks.”

Other recommendations from the study group included developing new capabilities to detect odd symptoms or patterns of disease, as well as new computational approaches for control, prevention, detection and attribution. Additionally, synthetic biology could be used to developed vaccines, therapeutics and advance detection.

“The U.S. government should pay close attention to this rapidly progressing field, just as it did to advances in chemistry and physics during the Cold War era,” said Michael Imperiale, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan, and the chair of the committee that conducted the study.

Topics: Counterterrorism, Chem Bio Protection, Homeland Security, Science and Engineering Technology, Research and Development

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