Thursday, August 27, 2015

Emerging Technologies: Bio-hacking and the Future of Bio-terrorism



For some time concern has been raised over 3D and 4D technologies, (with synthetic 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 York in late 2010. See: http://new.ted.com/talks/ellen_jorgensen_biohacking_you_can_do_it_too  


The lab Jorgensen oversees is one of approximately 45 DIY international science groups,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 supply chemical 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: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130122-how-we-became-biohackers-part-1

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. 

biohackspace.org 

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: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology, 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 chain 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 students, and could therefore be appropriated fairly easily by terrorist groups." See:http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology   

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:http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology 

"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: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology 

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:http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130122-how-we-became-biohackers-part-1 full review: Warfare Technology Analytics

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Emerging Technologies: Bio-hacking and the Future of Bio-terrorism




For some time concern has been raised over 3D and 4D technologies, (with synthetic 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 York in late 2010. See: http://new.ted.com/talks/ellen_jorgensen_biohacking_you_can_do_it_too  


The lab Jorgensen oversees is one of approximately 45 DIY international science groups,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 supply chemical 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: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130122-how-we-became-biohackers-part-1

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. 

biohackspace.org 

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: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology, 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 chain 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 students, and could therefore be appropriated fairly easily by terrorist groups." See:http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology   

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:http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology 

"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: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology 

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:http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130122-how-we-became-biohackers-part-1 full review: Warfare Technology Analytics

Global Health Security in an Era of Terrorism and Conflict

"Herington has argued that the “great potential of constructing health as a security issue is that it promises the appropriation of  vast resources and institutional attention”. More important, it better reflects the long-term effects of a major public health crisis to all parts of society and human life. Not least, the “Health in all Policies” doctrine could be understood that way." (/see: http://www.coemed.org/images/stories/2014-09-24-ebola%20outbreak%20west%20africa%20risk%20assessment.pdf)

"There is an inevitable linkage between public health security and bioterrorism, but foreign policy is also concerned with broader dimensions of cross-border health risks including, for example, the transmission of anti-microbial resistant organisms, as well as health risks associated with non-communicable diseases, environmental degradation and conflict."(http://www.coemed.org/images/stories/2014-09-24-ebola%20outbreak%20west%20africa%20risk%20assessment.pdf) 

Framing public health as a national security issue, be this via deliberate or natural disease outbreak, has been considered within most NATO Member States a policy priority particularly since the US anthrax attack's which called attention to the potential for 'bio-terrorism.' One of the lessons of Amerithrax, as its often termed is our increased interest in emerging, re-emerging, deliberate and natural disease outbreaks and a greater understanding in the face of transmissible and highly infectious diseases of 'global' public health threats versus the perception of endemic disease as a single state threat. Since the US anthrax attacks, SARS CoV, Avian Influenza, MERS, AMR, Polio, Malaria, Dengue and Ebola (just to name a few) have served to demonstrate how reliant nations are on creating and sustaining global public health infrastructures.

Conflict and disease often go hand in hand and in nations which have experienced conflict its often the case that their public health infrastructures are fragile which may lead to difficulties containing diseases which Western nations would not consider an issue. In terms of public health security we'e only as strong as our weakest link. Conflict and war which require much greater investment in public health and which often times slides under the radar unless it directly effects a western nation or economy is still a neglected sector of investment. Generally this sector is left to NGO's and UN agencies who work on extremely tight budgets just to maintain the minimum required.

Containing trans-boundary disease is not technically unfeasible, rather it is the lack of resources allocated in many instances, which inhibits swift containment as well as war and conflict which dramatically increase disease and simultaneously inhibits effective treatment of patients. Failed states and failing states struggle not only with endemic disease but groups of diseases be it tropical (Dengue, Malaria) or hemorrhagic (VHF's) which their public health infrastructures simply can not manage. Its critical that we understand the dynamics of war and terrorism and the often consequence of increased disease burden  and not only to the state or states directly involved but the international community as a whole.

When Ebola emerged in West Africa the economies and public health infrastructures of the states involved were recovering from civil war, war and other crisis. The World Health Organization which has been raked over the coals for what is perceived as a latent response has run for years on a budget the size of a hospital. Moreover announcing a public health emergency can have devastating effects on the nations involved far beyond disease transmission outside the boarders and can serve to increase mortality rates not decrease this. WHO's reluctance to declare such an emergency is understandable within the context and history of these states. Not only had there never been an Ebola outbreak in these nations, West Africa was recovering from several civil wars and crisis, the impact of then declaring a health emergency would have likely had very detrimental effects.

Preparing for future outbreaks of Ebola and the deliberate use of disease as a weapon, will require a change in mindset, particularly from those nations who are in a position economically to support investment in failed and failing states public health sectors. WHO and Medecines sans Frontieres simply can not do this alone and nor should they be criticized for the efforts undertaken given the outstanding issues involved. Public health is a security issue and prevention, preparedness and response to emergencies which don't acknowledge national borders mean our approach to public health security must be a global one, not a national one. Nations who take this approach are far more likely to protect their own citizens as well as the global community than those that are focused purely on their own national defence.

Although its likely that an act of mass casualty biological terrorism with state backing (not non-state supported bio-terrorism) will present a magnitude of difference on global scales which in my view have not been adequately assessed or prepared for by most states. This will require we work together to assess and contain any such outbreak of deliberate disease. Excluding partners will be to everyone's detriment. Disease is not political it effects everyone indiscriminately and it is a national security issue for all states.