The idea of bioterrorism and biological warfare is nothing new. As far back as antiquity, people have been meddling with biological materials and using them as a weapon. However, in the emerging era of synthetic biology, this old threat has an ugly new face.
The US Department of Defense has recently commissioned the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to look at the biggest threats posed by the rapidly advancing field of "synthetic biology".
All in all, the report is pretty damn scary but devilishly fascinating.
One of the most concerning threats, according to the report, is the ability to recreate known viruses in the lab. For example, scientists have already shown how it's perfectly possible to re-create an eradicated virus like smallpox using just its DNA. In the wrong hands, this could mean serious trouble.
The report imagines an especially terrifying scenario involving the creation of a genetically-altering ordinary human gut bacteria to produce toxins. You would effectively be killed by your own microbiome, meaning the attack is subtle and extremely hard to detect.
Equally, gene-editing could be abused to make an existing bacteria or virus even more deadly and contagious. Thanks to the burgeoning field of CRISPR gene editing, this has never been easier or cheaper.
In May 2018, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security posed a hypothetical scenario of just this. They attempted to speculate how the world would deal with an outbreak of “Clade X,” a fictional mix of Nipah virus and a human parainfluenza virus released by a fictional terrorist group. It didn’t end well for the US.
The report also identifies the threat of modifying the human immune system. It could be possible to develop a way of “purposely weakening a person’s immune system,” meaning even a usually innocent virus could wreak havoc on a population.
Biotechnology is currently blowing up as a field of study, meaning it’s extremely hard for policy-makers to keep up with the latest developments. This in itself raises bioterrorism to an even more concerning threat than more conventional means of warfare.
“The US 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,” study author Michael Imperiale, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Michigan, explained in a statement.
“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,” added 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.”