November 9, 2012

Biowarfare: A Fight At The Molecular Level

There is a fascinating article in The Atlantic (November 2012) on an emerging bioweapons storm that is brewing that could be used in a decapitation strike to harm anyone, even the President of the United States. 

Advances in genetic engineering, biotechnology, and synthetic biology (Synbio) has been seen from decoding human DNA to the development of "magic bullets", personalized viral therapies that can target and destroy cancer cells.

However, just as most things can be used for good or evil--so too, can this biotechnology be used to target and destroy cancerous cells or perversely to attack healthy ones.

Bioweapons could be targeted to various parts of the body or brain to cause blindness, memory loss, or death itself. More subtly, it can be used to "fabricate evidence" of affairs, crimes, "cast doubt" as to birthplace or heritage, or as supposed markers for genetic diseases, and even mental disability. 

Moreover, while bioweapons of mass destruction can destroy virtually entire civilizations, personalized bioweapons can be engineered based on the manipulation of a specific person's DNA to attack that person--then just like a sniper, it becomes one shot, one (targeted) kill. 

Personalized bioweapons can be silent and deadly, difficult to detect, hard to pin on a source, and may even be confused with death by natural causes. 

And the cost is coming down...cell-culturing gear "can be had on eBay for as little as $10,000" or "cobbled together for less than $1,000."

Even non-weaponized use of this technology, can be extremely dangerous. For example, Synbio, can be used to "cut and paste" genetic code from one species to another, can be mixed from multiple species, and new creatures can be created altogether--all this potentially leading to frightening scenarios of "undesired cross-breeding with other organisms, uncontrolled proliferation, crowding out existing species, and threats to biodiversity." 

Already, "forty nations now host synbio research" and "The Beijing Genomics the largest genomic research organization in the world."

The article speaks to various approaches to counter the personalized bioweapons threat including scientific task forces, bio-detectors, "Clean DNA" (as biological backup system), conducting biological war games, and open/crowdsourcing for solutions. 

It seems clear that the answers of how to defend against these emerging threats are not as good as the questions raised by them--and we will need to be vigilant and fast-track R&D in these areas, as we are still vulnerable. 

Further, I see some similarities between bioweapons, cyberweapons, and even legions of attack drones/droids, as all areas that are non-conventional and developing quickly and quite lethally. 

Unfortunately, we can't just put on a coat of armor and be safe from attacks at the molecular level, or from malicious code seeking to cripple our national critical infrastructure, or from robots that can stream across a battlespace attacking without fear, pain, or tiring. 

There is no simple paradigm for killing anymore and we better let our imaginations run wild, so we can figure out new ways to protect everyone--from the President and on down to us all.

(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)


No comments: