Biology + Computing = Designer Bioweapons

Over the past couple of decades, biologists have succeeded in cataloging the genetic makeup of all kinds of species, including humans. For a few thousand dollars, anyone can now get their genome sequenced. Technology has also advanced to the point where biological molecules can be created: simply create a blueprint, send it to a lab, and they send back a live version. And if you create some DNA, insert it into an bacterium cell that’s been emptied of its own DNA, it will start reading your new DNA and follow the instructions encoded within it — just like a biological version of a computer. Put all of this together and what it means is that in the not-too-distant future, biosynthesis — the creation of biological material — will explode, based on the promise of medicine made just for you: a virus that will attack just your cancer cells and leave the others alone, a vaccine for the particular strain of flu going around your town, or an injection that will help your body digest your food better in order to lose weight.

Swine Flu (H1N1) Virus

 

But, as The Atlantic points out, with great power, comes great responsibility: people smart enough to make a virus that will attack a specific cancer cell will also be able to make one that will kill the President, and only the President, leaving little, if any, trace. The scenario they flesh out is this:

  1. Someone gets a hold of the President’s DNA
  2. They create a virus that targets only cells with his particular DNA and causes flu-like symptoms that quickly lead to death
  3. They infect a student at Harvard University with the virus, a couple of days before the President visits
  4. The student passes the virus along to others, and by the time of the visit, half the student body is a carrier, possibly experiencing flu-like symptoms
  5. The President catches the virus while there, then a few days later dies, apparently from the flu
  6. Since the virus is unique, there’s no test to detect its presence in the President’s blood. His relatives, who share much of his DNA, may also get sick

That’s just one very specific scenario, but it can be tweaked in countless different ways: perhaps the virus is designed to lie dormant for several months; perhaps the virus doesn’t kill, but rather affects the President’s brain chemistry to make him forgetful, aggressive, or to appear insane. It doesn’t even have to be designed for one person: it can be made to kill everyone that has red hair or is related to bin Laden. It also doesn’t have to be a virus: it could be sperm, used to create children as proof of an affair. Or it could be a new designer lifeform, like a gryphon or a dragon. And all of this will be within the power of a new breed of engineers that will essentially program biological software. Says The Atlantic:

“Bill Gates, in a recent interview, told a reporter that if he were a kid today, forget about hacking computers: he’d be hacking biology.”

The benefits of the technology as a cancer cure alone means that it will become reality as soon as humanly feasible. The nature of the technology also means that it will be difficult to control domestically, and impossible to control within the borders of countries like Iran and North Korea. Therefore, the main apocalyptic threat for the 21st century will no longer be nuclear weapons, but rather biological ones.

 

The Secret Service already tries to keep the President’s DNA from falling into the wrong hands, and the FBI has a Biological Countermeasures Unit that works with biosynthesis companies to ensure that their nascent systems are built with security in mind. In the near future, limits will likely be imposed on who can place an order for biological material to be synthesized and effects may be simulated by a computer before it is created — although, intentions can probably be obscured. Eventually, we may build a gigantic network of sensors sampling the air all over the country and analyzing it for any molecules out of the ordinary. If a new virus is discovered, an antidote will be synthesized and released in the same areas. In effect, it will be a nation-sized anti-virus system.

From The Atlantic

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