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Managing the unimaginable future

Note: This is the fourth of Quinn Norton’s five-part series on Drew Endy and synthetic biology. The earlier installments are Everything you needed to know about human-created life forms but were afraid to ask, The dummy’s guide to engineering genes, and Play God for fun and profit (mostly fun).

non-human pathogens Extraordinary opportunities for yet-unknowable creativity nearly always comes with the threat of catastrophic destruction. In biology, the downside comes up quickly. This is because un-engineered Nature has always been so good at catastrophic destruction on its own.

What happens when the bad guys start making microbes? Thoughts of malicious biology haunt the background of all the miraculous proposals. Indeed, with a little imagination, bioengineered threats could emerge from anywhere. From industrial espionage in the farming sector to massive production of illegal drugs, it’s easy to see that a world of synthetic biology will offer challenges well beyond what we can imagine now. Much of our current worry is focused on lethal pathogens, like smallpox or the 1918 flu. The later created a stir in 2005 when a group of researchers published the genome, and then recreated the virus on their own. A bit of nearly all genetic engineers’ minds seems to be chewing on the biosecurity problem. Some of the ideas being discussed are controlling access the production of genes, auditing manufactured genes for known pathogenic sequences, and creating comprehensive biosensing in the environment. All of these proposals have well understood flaws.

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There is no comprehensive answer to the threats, and it’s not likely there will be. While the best minds in bioengineering are thinking a lot about these dangers, it seems likely that management of human created malicious creatures could be its own full time industry, joining our existing war with natural disease. We know we have to go forward. The cat is out of the bag — even if the good guys complete gave up genetic research, there’s no way to stop the bad guys going forward.

Also: Dr. Endy on biotech security. (mp3, 3.2m)

Next: What’s next for the microbe hackers.

Wheat Rust is courtesy stellarr on Flickr.

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  • http://dasht-exp-1a.com Thomas Lord

    Quinn,

    The biosecurity issue strikes me as partly right, and partly a red herring. A very dangerous red herring. I want to say “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

    It is glib to assert, as you have, that the reason biosecurity concerns come up is “because un-engineered Nature has always been so good at catastrophic destruction on its own”. I’m sorry but I think that is a condescending position for biologists to take.

    Rather, the reason that people try to impede the progress of synthetic biology may well be because of sound intuitions derived from sound science and math about the dangers being amplified by the practices of the field. Invasive species, once released, reproduce prolifically. In suitably complex systems — such as cells — there is no way predict exactly when a malevolent species will be created. By perturbing the genomic inventory of the planet with unprecedented energy, we are likely to create unintended consequences which (first guess) each having a 50/50 chance of being malevolent. The benefits are mainly theoretical and because of the careless handling of this, all of us are “in the test-tube”. Extreme dangers are being imposed on all of us, with plenty of reason to believe the dangers will be realized, by the so-called “good actors”.

    “Bad actors” are a generic problem. That is a law enforcement and military and geopolitical concern. That is, “natively,” a cultural concern of developing cultural values that make it harder for people to hide their activities from their neighbors.

    Yet, if we had a magic button that, once pressed, promised “no more bad actors” the resistance to synthbio in its current form would (or at least should) remain about as strong.

    -t