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Top threats from weaponized organisms

Illustration of purple background (referring to flu) with needle entering medicine bottle next to flu cells
Illustration: Axios Visuals

During the Cold War era, the American government was able to closely monitor and prepare for advances in chemistry and physics. Now, some researchers say the U.S. needs to do the same for future threats from engineered organisms.

Threat level: Synthetic biology, which can help fight diseases and produce improved food and fuel, can also already be weaponized in part, warned a group of researchers Tuesday in presenting their 200+ page report to the Department of Defense.

One challenge: DNA sequencing tools and other advances like CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing have made it easier to modify and recreate bacteria and viruses.

"You can't simply rely on list-based methods to keep track of all the potential biological agents to be concerned about," Patrick Boyle, a member of the committee who wrote the report, tells Axios. The report was presented by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

  • Synthetic biology-enabled weapons are hard to detect and the DOD should consider evaluating and boosting public health monitoring, said Boyle, who is head of design at Ginkgo Bioworks.

The top three current concerns are:

1. Recreating known pathogens. New technologies enable any mammalian virus to be recreated, and databases like GenBank have made the genomes of known human viruses open to the public.

  • Already, scientists have recreated the extinct horsepox virus, which is related to the deadly smallpox. "That genome is long, with more than 200,000 base pairs," Boyle says. "We wouldn't have been able to do that 10 years ago."
  • One thing that could be considered is to develop and stock universal flu vaccine, Diane DiEuliis, committee member and senior research fellow at National Defense University, said at the press conference.

2. Making existing bacteria more dangerous. "We've known how to modify bacteria for a long time," Michael Imperiale, chair of the committee, said at the press conference. "And we have the tools to make it antibiotic resistant."

3. Making biochemicals via microbes living on the skin or in the gut. Imperiale, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan's Medical School, says someone could take an organism that is found regularly in the gut, engineer it so that it becomes toxic to humans, and then figure out a way to deliver it.

  • The core technology to produce these microbes is readily available.
  • One big concern, he said, is that symptoms caused by these types of agents could be misdiagnosed.

The bottom line: The researchers hope defense and health agencies will adopt their platform, which assesses relative concern by looking at 4 factors: usability of technology, usability as a weapon, the requirements of the actors to be able to act, and the potential to deter or prevent an attack.

  • "The next question is, how can DOD, HHS and others tweak their program to match the threats down the road," DiEuliis says.

Go deeper: Read NPR's analysis of the report and Axios' look at the business of synthetic biology startups.

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