Frankenstein in the basement?

I suppose it should have come as no great surprise to learn that biotechnology is no longer confined to well-funded, well-equipped research laboratories (also, one hopes, well regulated). In previous generations, people working in makeshift workshops acquired the know-how and materials to assemble working automobiles, radios, and computers. Any new technology is going to attract people who want to try it out, but for whatever reasons cannot or do not want to work in an established research center.

Still, I was surprised. When my husband worked as a research scientist in a molecular biology lab, he told me how extremely expensive the equipment was. For a pharmaceutical company, it was a worthwhile investment, but hardly the sort of thing a hobbyist could buy for a basement workroom. Of course, technology has been advancing at an incredible rate, and many of us have home computer networks that would have been the envy of corporate offices a couple decades ago.

These days, it seems, you can pick up used lab equipment on ebay, and synthetic DNA is also readily available. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal discusses the question of whether this widespread availability constitutes a national security concern. As is common with radically new technology, existing laws and regulations don’t even address the kinds of issues raised by these developments, let alone provide a means of monitoring or enforcement.

My mind immediately went to various thrillers I have read in the last few years in which biotechnology – and bioterrorism – feature prominently. Robert Ludlum’s The Hades Factor and its sequel, Robert Ludlum’s The Cassandra Compact, both deal with murder on a large scale using biological agents. It’s been longer since I read Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, but I vaguely remember the twisted environmentalism of a group intent on saving the natural world from humanity’s predations by wiping out most of the world’s population (naturally they have a plan to exempt themselves from death by pandemic).

Whether or not the scenarios in those novels are realistic from a biological perspective (and I figure if they’re not today, advances in technology could easily make them possible – just think how improbable cloning twenty years ago), the villains clearly needed to be well-financed. The biological agents used to threaten humanity were not cooked up in an attic or basement, but in state-of-the-art labs. Corruption and elaborately planned theft allowed the bad guys to get their hands what should have been closely guarded material.

But what if amateur biologists could create deadly new organisms in their basements and garages? Even those who do their research with the best of intentions, hoping to cure disease or develop renewable fuel sources, might unintentionally create a microscopic version of Frankenstein’s monster. (Contrary to popular cultural references, Frankenstein was not the monster but the scientist who created it.) Amateur labs are also less likely to have strict controls to make sure that what happens in the lab stays in the lab.

If someone hasn’t already written a thriller based on this scenario (and probably someone has – I only skimmed quickly through a long list of novels based on biological threats), I’m sure someone will soon. But I’m more interested in knowing how realistic such a scenario is. From what I see in the WSJ article, scientists and law enforcement differ on the seriousness of the potential threat.

The biohackers (as these hobbyists are called) point out that nature creates much more lethal dangers than they are likely to create in their labs. The H1N1 flu (the official name for what people have been calling swine flu) is just the latest example of a new virus that came into being without any attempts at genetic manipulation. (I am not particularly worried about it, but I did just find out yesterday that one of my co-workers has H1N1, and my supervisor went home early today because of a sore throat and the realization that he had been working closely with that particular co-worker lately.)

On the other hand, we have numerous examples of human attempts use “natural” solutions to pest problems by introducing a predator species, only to see the new species establish itself so thoroughly in the area that it becomes the new threat. (I was just reading yesterday about the results of the introduction of the cane toad in Australia.) Who knows what unintended consequences will result, perhaps not now but in the decades to come, from our tinkering with organisms’ genetic code?

I read one analysis which sounded a serious warning, pointing out that

The emerging biological weapon threat is infinitely more lethal, indiscriminate, and easily employed than nuclear weapons and, as a result, a defensive vice offensive biological warfare research program is needed to counter this threat.

Another analysis, however, pointed out that so far there is little indication that terrorists are moving toward using biological weapons. With previous technological opportunities, once a technique had been used successfully by one terrorist group, other groups quickly began to utilize the same methods. With bioterror, however, so far the threats have nearly all turned out to be hoaxes. (Of course, this may still accomplish the terrorists’ goals of getting attention and generating fear, since public safety officials can never disregard a threat since it might turn out to be real.)

One very informative article presents answers by two experts as to the obstacles that would face any group attempting a program of bioterrorism. Biological agents, it turns out, are for the most part very difficult to store successfully for any length of time (not because they escape but because they die). And the ones that are not as fragile tend not to be as lethal either.

Scale here is important: if one wants to contaminate a few salad bars or a co-worker’s lunch by dribbling on the fluid from a test tube containing dysentery germs, it can (and has been) done by persons with routine bacteriology laboratory experience on an “ad hoc” basis.

But, the production and processing and preparation for delivery of sufficient material to make a biological weapons weapon capable of causing mass casualties (100s or 1,000s), for instance in an aerosol attack on a city, is a daunting task, and would require very considerable arcane expertise and a significant amount of sophisticated equipment. It is not something one could do with a college bacteriology textbook and some left over pickle jars.

Despite the lack of credible threats, the possible dangers have been played up with the public and with leaders responsible for public safety. This is probably a combination of imagination inflamed by techno-thrillers in print and on the screen, media eager for sensational stories, and officials fearful of not having taken a potential threat seriously enough (especially after 9/11).

The two common approaches to all this seem to be either not to do much of anything, because the threat really doesn’t seem all that great, or the opposite extreme, to try to keep tight controls on biological research. The most sensible approach I see, however, is that of Rob Carlson. He points out that the knowledge and equipment will inevitably proliferate, as we see already happening.

Where design expertise exceeds practical experience, commercially available kits include recipes that allow moving genes between organisms by following simple recipes. The process might be slightly more complicated than baking cookies, but it is for the most part less complicated than making wine or beer.

Unlike nuclear weapons, which require raw materials that are fairly easy to limit and track, biotechnology uses raw materials that anyone can obtain. And the knowledge required for it is also required for legitimate businesses, often in the fastest growing sectors of the economy.

Moreover, controlled substances have always managed to persist in a black market, where they fuel a lucrative trade for people willing to take the risks. Rather than fighting a losing war against people’s desire to experiment, where law-abiding people abandon the work and criminal elements continue it, he recommends rather promoting a free flow of information among people pursuing this kind of research, whether at a professional or amateur level.

I certainly don’t have the expertise needed to evaluate his recommendations, but they make sense to me:

  1. We should resist the impulse to restrict research and the flow of information. Ignorance will help no one in the event of an emergent threat and, given the pace and proliferation of biological technologies, the likelihood of threats will increase in coming years.
  2. The best way to keep apprised of the activities of both amateurs and professionals is to establish open networks of researchers, perhaps modeled on the Open Source Software (OSS) movement, and potentially sponsored by the government during their embryonic phases. The Open Source development community thrives on constant communication and plentiful free advice. This behavior is common practice for professional biology hackers, and it is already evident on the Web amongst amateur biology hackers.
  3. Because human intelligence gathering is, alas, demonstrably inadequate for the task at hand, we should develop technology that enables pervasive environmental monitoring. The best way to detect biological threats is using biology itself, in the form of genetically modified organisms.

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