Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Emerging Technologies: Bio-hacking and the future of bio-terrorism

For some time concern has been raised over 3D and 4D technologies, (withsynthetic biology the emerging technological forerunner of these concerns and the NSABB playing watchdog), with regard to how inherent de-skilling may reduce the technical threshold which inhibits most would-be weaponeers from developing and deploying a weaponized biological agent capable of mass destruction. At the somewhat more extreme end, bio-hacking could reduce barriers which are perhaps better left in place.  Bio-hacking  was put on the map in 2013 when molecular biologist Ellen Jorgensen delivered a TED talk about Genespace, the DIY science lab she opened in New Yorkin late 2010. See:  

(Image: Mac Cowell/FutureLabCamp)
The lab Jorgensen oversees is one of approximately 45 DIY international sciencegroups,of  more than twenty in the US. While some of these labs are rather extreme in their goals, emerging technology such as 3D bioprinting could theoretically reduce the knowledge needed to develop synthetic weapons. So far several of the bio-hacking groups seem to be content with using themselves in experiments and implanting magnets but coding life for the masses and or the non-scientific community, could become a lot easier in a relatively short period of time.
"But we don't smuggle plutonium. We don't supplychemical weapons. We don't build rockets. Instead we have a hobby that the FBI believes could be so dangerous that they have come up with a special programme to make sense of it. That hobby is to play with genes, proteins and bacteria in our spare time in a homemade lab we constructed from scratch. We are part of a rapidly growing community of amateur geneticists, who are often labelled biopunks, or outlaw biologists. Or, better still, in an analogy to the computer programming enthusiasts of a generation ago, some call us bio-hackers. But instead of software code, we try to tinker with DNA, the code of life. The FBI has set up the Biological Countermeasures Unit ( ) one of their goals in preventing acts of terrorism is to reach out to leading names in the field to quiz them about what they do." See:

This surely must be cutting edge bio-security, however, how close are bio-hackers to actually crossing what was considered the technological threshold to creating what might even be considered synthetic biological weapons? After 911 and the US anthrax attacks, I advised governments that mass casualty bio-terrorism was not as simple as it was being touted. In fact I, and several other scientists, focused on state warfare laboratories, considering bio-terrorism not of real world interest. Emerging technology which results in de-skilling however, may make the life of the would be bioweaponeer far easier and reduce what was always considered to be rather insurmountable technical barriers, certainly in the deployment of a mass casualty weapon. 

What is the current view of life sciences deskilling, given the increase in DIY science? Johnathan B.Tucker, a former long time colleague, presented an excellent analysis of the issue in his paper, "Could Terrorists Exploit Synthetic Biology? published in The New Atlantis, see:, although notably before bio-hacker movement emerged more openly into the media with a cohesive defined goal and group structure. Tucker, in his analysis states: 

"Member of this second school point to a contradictory trend in biotechnological development that they claim will ultimately prove stronger. They note that the evolution of many emerging technologies involves a process of de-skilling that, over time, reduces the amount of tacit knowledge required for their use. Chris Chyba of Princeton, for example, contends that as whole-genome synthesis is automated, commercialized, and 'black-boxed,' it will become more accessible to individuals with only basic scientific skills, including terrorists and other malicious actors (16).De-skilling has already occurred in several genetic-engineering techniques that have been around for more than twenty years, including gene cloning (copying foreign genes in bacteria), transfection (introducing foreign genetic material into a cell), ligation (stitching fragments of DNA together), and the polymerase chane reaction, or PCR (which makes it possible to copy any particular DNA sequence several million fold). Although one must have access to natural genetic material to use these techniques, the associated skill sets have diffused widely across the international scientific community. In fact, a few standard genetic-engineering techniques have been de-skilled to the point that they are now accessible to undergraduates and even advanced high school 
, and could therefore be appropriated fairly easily by terrorist groups." See:   

Gerald Epstein, of the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, write that whole-genome synthesis 'appears to be following a trajectory familiar to other useful techniques: Originally accessible only to a handful of top research groups working at state of the art facilities, synthesis techniques are becoming more widely available as they are refined, simplified, and improved by skilled technicians and craftsmen. Indeed, they are increasingly becoming 'commoditized,' as kits, processes, reagents, and services become available for individuals with basic lab training." (17). In 2007 Epstein and three co-authors predicted that 'ten years from now, it may be easier to synthesize almost any pathogenic virus than to obtain it through other means," although they did not imply that individuals with only basic scientific training will be among the first to acquire this capability.(18)" See: 

"To date, the de-skilling of synthetic genomics has affected only a few elements of what is actually a complex, multi-step process. Practitioners of de novo viral synthesis note that the most challenging steps do not involve the synthesis of DNA fragments, which can be ordered from commercial suppliers, but the assembly of these fragments into a functional genome and the expression of the viral proteins. According to a report by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a federal advisory committee, "The technology for synthesizing DNA is rapidly accessible, straightforward and a fundamental tool used in current biological research. In contrast, the science of constructing and expressing viruses in the laboratory is more complex and somewhat of an art. It is the laboratory procedures downstream from the actual synthesis of DNA that are the limiting steps in recovering viruses from genetic material." (19)" See: 

As technology emerges which contributes to deskilling and with the advent of DIY science, we may witness rather rapid advancements which overcome the long time presumed threshold. The bio-hacking community has emerged because techniques used in molecular biology have been de-skilled and the cost has dropped. 

"A couple of decades ago, it took three years to learn how to clone and sequence a gene, and you earned a PhD in the process. Now, thanks to ready made kits you can do the same in less than three days. Specialized materials and second hand equipment are much more affordable, not to mention more available. Machines for amplifying DNA can now be purchased online, whilst enzymes and chemicals for creating, manipulating and sticking together DNA an be ordered off the shelf. The cost of sequencing DNA has plummeted , from about 100,000 for reading a million letters or base pairs, of DNA code in 2001, to around 10 cents today. See: full review: 

Jill Bellamy is an internationally recognized expert on biological warfare and defence. She has formerly advised NATO and for the past seventeen years has represented a number of bio-pharmaceutical and government clients working on procurement strategy between NATO MS and Washington DC. Her articles have appeared in the National Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Sunday Times of London, Le Temps, Le Monde and the Jerusalem Post among other publications. She is a CBRN SME with the U.S. Department of Defence, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence Information Analysis Center and CEO of Warfare Technology Analytics, a private consultancy based in the Netherlands. She is an Associate Fellow with the Henry Jackson Society, UK.

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