Genetic weapons are possible
You may have to work in the defense sector to even suspect a bio-weapon in a cup of yogurt. Such a scenario appears to an expert group of US National Academy of Sciences Although it is not very likely, it cannot be completely ruled out in the future. The new tools of genetic engineering make an attack with modified probiotics theoretically possible.
Experts have investigated these and other dangers on behalf of the American Department of Defense. The question was to what extent the still young research field of synthetic biology could be used to create weapons. "Even if some applications still seem implausible at the moment, they could become possible as technology advances," says the recently published report.
With synthetic biology, researchers can create organisms in the laboratory that do not exist in nature. Viewed positively, these could be microorganisms that produce valuable chemicals, but also plants or even animals with completely new properties. Some experts see the methods of synthetic biology as an advanced form of genetic engineering.
It was not only the US Department of Defense first discovered that this approach can also be used to manufacture new types of biological weapons. "It is a topic that concerns us regularly," says Lars Schaade, head of the Center for Biological Hazards and Special Pathogens and Vice President of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin. In Germany, the center is responsible for identifying and evaluating bioterrorist attacks and helping to combat them. Although no specific threat is known, scientists have been discussing the dangerous side of synthetic biology for years, they say.
There were always reasons for this: In 2002, the biochemist Eckard Wimmer at Stony Brook University in New York, together with two colleagues, completely prepared the genome of the polio pathogen in the laboratory. In 2012, the Dutchman Ron Fouchier published a method with which he had endowed influenza viruses with dangerous new properties. And last summer, the Canadian virologist David Evans described in detail in a specialist article how to put together the smallpox virus, which has been exterminated in nature, from chemically synthesized DNA fragments.
Attack via probiotic: theoretically possible, but currently rather unlikely
The experts discussed all these experiments heatedly as well as the question of whether they should be published at all. At the Robert Koch Institute such experiments would not have been made in the first place, says Schaade, precisely because the knowledge that is gained from them can be dangerous. He is therefore glad that Evans "did not disclose the instructions down to the very last detail". Having said that, he can hardly learn anything new from the new American report. Except maybe the probiotic attack idea.
That was just one of various attack scenarios that the experts designed on behalf of the Pentagon. The group believes that harmful manipulation of bacteria that live in the human digestive tract is possible, but there are more likely avenues of attack: the resurrection of a pathogen that has been eradicated in nature, such as smallpox, for example. Or the mass production of biological toxins using genetically modified bacteria. Or microbes that have a few genes inserted into them that make them more dangerous than they already are. Experts can already do all of this in well-equipped laboratories.
On the other hand, the authors of the report believe that it is theoretically feasible, very dangerous, but currently still unlikely that completely new pathogens are created in the laboratory, as well as interference with the human genome by a biological weapon. The US Department of Defense has dealt with the dangers of synthetic biology as regularly as Lars Schaade and his colleagues have done in the past. The last time there was a report on this was last year.
The Bundeswehr is also dealing with the issue without there being any evidence of an acute threat to date - ignoring the biobomb that a man in Cologne wanted to brew from plant seeds the week before last. The highly toxic ricin obtained in this way should possibly be spread into the environment with an explosive device. For such an attack, however, neither a laboratory nor special knowledge of synthetic biology is necessary.
So why is the Pentagon releasing another bio-weapons report right now? Petra Dickmann cannot explain that either. The communication scientist and physician deals, among other things, with the debate about biological safety and notes that she has "a certain fatigue effect" due to the constant discussions. "Reality has long overtaken us."
"At the moment we are facing a conflagration with a small bucket"
Evans' work at the latest has shown that a deadly virus can be created in the laboratory today. Now society must find ways to deal with these new opportunities. "There is no quick answer to that," says Dickmann, who is currently developing a course in public health and health security and offering advice on risk communication at the Clinic for Anesthesia and Intensive Care Medicine at the University Hospital in Jena. She suggests initiating a process, perhaps creating an institute to investigate this question, instead of always summing up a group of experts after an event, which then makes recommendations but fails to find a solution.
"It is not enough to put ten Nobel Prize winners in one room and have them search for an answer; we need a broad social discussion." This is the only way to find new answers to the new questions. "At the moment we are facing a conflagration with a small bucket."
For the timing of the Pentagon, however, there is perhaps a simple explanation: The report appeared just one day after US President Donald Trump presented his idea of a troop of soldiers for space, which he wants to call the "Space Force". Perhaps the Defense Ministry simply wanted to counter these cosmic fantasies with a bit of realism.
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