ICBioethics Blog 

Dual-use and Biosecurity

Written by: Aimee Zellers

As the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing moves forward, this is a good time to take a moment of silence and show support for those victims, the first responders, and investigators who are working their way through this tragic event.

In times of tragedy we often consider weaknesses in our defenses and try to anticipate potential threats. I typically blog about emerging and innovative health technologies. Today, however, I would like to write briefly about the problem of dual-use. Dual-use exists when a technology, while intended for good and positive uses, can potentially be used for pernicious and nefarious acts. The issue of dual-use is inherent in all emerging technologies and our response to these potential problems must be carefully measured.

Of all the emerging technologies in development right now, possibly the most potentially threatening are the products of synthetic biology. Many products of synthetic biology are genetically engineered organisms, synthetized organisms, or entirely new organisms.

Biosecurity is a primary concern because there is a potential for the misuse of the products of synthetic biology to have a dramatic impact in ecosystems, human and animal health, and so on. There are already examples of scientists reengineering viruses such as poliovirus and the Spanish flu.

With the increasing availability of second hand equipment and as DNA sequencing becomes easier, additional danger rises from biohackers. Some scholars maintain that government-level biological warfare programs currently pose the greatest threat for potential misuse. They also indicate that it is unlikely that new organisms will be developed and released; rather it is more likely that a modified version of a preexisting organism like the poliovirus will be developed.

Whether new lethal components are created or existing ones are modified, the problem of abuse and misuse certainly exists. These fears are amplified by the fact that organisms evolve and their properties could change in unanticipated ways. This in turn makes evaluating long-term consequences or potential harms very difficult.  Uncontrolled release of new microorganisms is a serious concern because there is no way to predict how the new organism will impact the existing system. Moreover, this is compounded if the microorganism was not intended for that particular system.

Concerns pertaining to biosecurity and the threat of bioterrorism should not cripple research efforts. However, these dangers must be taken seriously and addressed. The benefits from the products of synthetic biology will be immense, so we cannot arrest research efforts; however, that does not mean we should not be prepared for some of the products to be used in malicious ways.

Mitch GennusoComment