Synthetic Biology: An Emerging National Security Threat

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Synthetic biology has become both a tool for disease mitigation and scientific exploration, as well as a national security concern. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has recently released a 2018 report on the threat synthetic biology presents to United States national security, its conclusions are alarming. Factors which were considered while building the analytical framework for this report consisted of the usability of the technology, its usability as a weapon, the requirements of actors, and the potential for mitigation; after considering all factors, the findings were subsequently assigned specific levels of concern based off of these elements.[i] In addition to these elements, the report further assessed the ease of access to both resources and expertise, the barriers of use, the production and delivery methods, and the actions that can be taken to mitigate these challenges.[ii] In conclusion, the report suggests that synthetic biology expands what is possible, it will become increasingly relevant, and it urges the United States Government (USG) to pursue partnerships with various government agencies to implement programs that mitigate this concern, primarily by creating new and appropriate monitoring mechanisms. Synthetic biology demands unconventional attention in ways that are dissimilar to the chemical and biological weapons domains.

Synthetic Biology expands what is possible by utilizing 21st-century technology and therefore should be treated with increased attention through new and universally integrated monitoring techniques. This domain is not simply segregated into engineering, chemistry, biology, and physics, but is a conglomeration of each, and more. Mechanisms that produce synthetic biology products are commercially available and easy to access for hobbyists and novices alike. The primary concerns deriving from this practice include re-creating known pathogenic viruses, the ability to make existing viruses more dangerous, to potential to modify the human genome and its accompanying metabolic processes, and most importantly, the possibility to create an entirely new pathogen.[iii]

It should be noted that both the industrial and commercial providers of genetically modified DNA strands present the opportunity to be monitored by various government ran software infrastructures. [iv] Dr. Renee Wegrzyn of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has worked to create a robust monitoring program named Safe Genes, a program that actively examines layered, modular, and adaptable solutions set to protect warfighters and the homeland against gene editing technologies.[v] In addition, John Julias, of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA), is the project manager of Fun GCAT (Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats), a program that seeks to reduce the ambiguity of bioinformatic screening.[vi] Each of the aforementioned programs is innovations demanding attention and increased funding from the DoD. Programmatic execution and reliability are both heavily reliant on manpower expertise, resources, capability, and capacity, all of which can be a direct reflection of adequate DoD funding. It is understood that these monitoring techniques will undoubtedly be a strain on the intelligence community and participating organizations alike. One way to offset this abundance of data is with artificial intelligence and machine learning software.[vii] While the implementation of this idea is an ambitious endeavor, it can and should be done.

In the effort to diminish synthetic biology threats, the DoD must work with universities and research institutions alike so that best practices, awareness, and monitoring of programmatic research is being conducted safely. An example of negative university involvement regarding synthetic biology is the 2002 Poliovirus debacle, in which Professor Eckard Wimmer caused concern by using gene sequencing to recreate the poliovirus in a tube, initiating alarm in both the defense and scientific communities.[viii] Fast forward to 2016, and lab virologist David Evans at the University of Alberta in Canada was able to recreate the once extinct horsepox virus, subsequently publishing his research, and making it readily accessible to the public.[ix] Both of these examples possess their own intricate and circumstantial points of information, but they ultimately shed light on the possible maleficent opportunities that could have arisen had no action been taken.  In correlation with the previously mentioned Fun GCAT program, it is important to note that the leadership of the Georgia Institute of Technology comprises one of the primary sources of expertise in bioinformatics research.[x] It is imperative that the DoD assess and implement strategies in university settings that can mitigate the risk of synthetic biology by using transparency, accountability, participation, integrity, and capacity (TAPIC) type framework.[xi]

While deterrence in and of itself is a theoretical and philosophical construct, the United States must implement government run programs to overtly and publicly acknowledge its responsorial capabilities to a synthetic biology attack. This deterrence posture must also acknowledge to the public the severity of a synthetic biology attack to dissuade and deter adversaries from using these capabilities as weapon systems. This aspect of the argument is relatively subjective to the previously mentioned points. However, this task should not be misconstrued, as the United States has seen its adversaries harness the potential to surpass its capabilities in various domains before, subsequently realizing that it had fallen behind, i.e., space and cyberspace. While both space and cyberspace are domains typically secondary to that of the nuclear enterprise, we utilize deterrence constructs for both. The task of deterrence in both of these domains is not merely speculation but is specifically outlined in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and the 2011 National Security Space Strategy for our adversaries to see. The same attention that is given to these proliferating domains should be given to synthetic biology, an action that can prevent the United States from continuing its cyclical scenario of “falling behind and catching back up.”

Synthetic biology is a domain for scientific exploration, it is neither good nor bad, and impeding on any individuals right to experiment with, explore, and innovate with this science is a direct contradiction to the American values. The DoD abides by the Budget Control Act for both FY20 and FY21 and does not have the resources to provide funding to an arbitrary and potentially non-threatening domain such as synthetic biology. Instead, the DoD should direct its attention to other aspects of national security like the nuclear modernization and life extension programs of our quickly diminishing nuclear triad.

Despite the regulatory restrictions of the Budget Control Act for both FY20 and FY21, the DoD is granted a hefty spending cap. While it can be argued that an attack from synthetic biology has not occurred, and therefore the U.S. should not spend the resources, one must remember that only once has a nuclear weapon been used, yet we construct our entire defense strategy and theoretical debate(s) around this one instance.

Synthetic biology is a widely misunderstood domain where its national security implications are severely underestimated. As outlined by the National Academies report, this domain will soon become an area of concern. The total funding amount of a program that addresses the threat does not need to be provided upfront, but instead, must be available for use over a long period. It is understood that a program of this nature and magnitude must take into consideration the planning, programming, budgeting, and execution phases of program development and all other acquisitions processes. To make sure synthetic biology monitoring programs gain the attention they deserve; the DoD must maintain a flexible and agile approach in overseeing the institution of these programs.  It is understood that as of right now there are no imminent synthetic biology threats, but to eradicate the cyclical scenario of falling behind, the DoD must remain ready to address the projected consequences that synthetic biology presents.


Joseph Zeman, Graduate student at Missouri State University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies and legislative intern.

Sources:

Applied Bioinformatics Laboratory, “FunGCAT Poster,” iarpa.gov, https://www.iarpa.gov/images/files/programs/fungcat/ABiL%20FunGCAT%20Poster.pdf

Edwards, Brett, “Taking Stock of Security Concerns Related to Synthetic Biology in an Age of Responsible Innovation,” Front Public Health, 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4088943/

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24890.

H.R.5515 – John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/5515/text

Julias, John, “Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats (FunGCAT),” iarpa.gov, 2016. https://www.iarpa.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=752&Itemid=354

Quaglia, Daniela, “Biosecurity and Synthetic Biology: It Is Time to Get Serious,” PLOS.org, August 22, 2017. https://blogs.plos.org/synbio/2017/08/22/biosecurity-and-synthetic-biology-it is-time-to-get-serious/

Trump, Benjamin D., “Synthetic Biology Regulation and Governance: Lessons from TAPIC for the United States, European Union, and Singapore,” Health Policy, Volume 121, Issue 11, November 2017. P.1139-1146. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168851017301999

Wegrzyn, Dr. Renee, “Safe Genes,” Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, https://www.darpa.mil/program/safe-genes

Wimmer, Eckard, “The test-tube Synthesis of a Chemical Called Poliovirus: The Simple Synthesis of a Virus has Far-Reaching Societal Implications,” EMBO Reports, July 2006, No.S3-S9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1490301/

Zeman, Joseph, Cohen Samuel, “AI: An Offset to the IC’s Information Overload,” Realcleardefense, February 6, 2018. https://www.realcleardefense.com/2018/02/06/ai_an_offset_to_the_ic039s_information_overload_300123.html

Endnotes:

[i] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Edwards, Brett, “Taking Stock of Security Concerns Related to Synthetic Biology in an Age of Responsible Innovation,” Front Public Health, 2014

[v] Wegrzyn, Dr. Renee, “Safe Genes,” Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

[vi] Julias, John, “Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats (FunGCAT),” iarpa.gov, 2016

[vii] Zeman, Joseph, Cohen Samuel, “AI: An Offset to the IC’s Information Overload,” Realcleardefense, February 6, 2018.

[viii] Wimmer, Eckard, “The Test-Tube synthesis of a Chemical Called Poliovirus”

[ix] Quaglia, Daniela, “Biosecurity and Synthetic Biology: It is Time to Get Serious”

[x] Applied Bioinformatics Laboratory, “FunGCAT Poster,” iarpa.gov

[xi] Trump, Benjamin D., “Synthetic Biology Regulation and Governance: Lessons from TAPIC for the United States, European Union, and Singapore,” Health Policy



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