The risks of synthetic biology in the information society

October 21, 2018

Knowledge is power. The instructions for making viruses from synthetic strands of DNA are on the internet. And, the strands themselves are available for purchase online. It’s called synthetic biology. Right now it’s not easy to get the strands to you need to make dangerous viruses or to put them together. But it is becoming easier.

That’s the issue that exploded concerning the synthetic construction of an thought-to-be extinct horsepox virus. The problem is that the instructions for making horsepox are distressingly useful for constructing a smallpox virus, a virus responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths in the 20th century alone until its eradication. Smallpox, you’ll recall, was eradicated through a successful worldwide effort led by the World Health Organization. After 1980 it was no longer necessary to vaccinate people against the disease and very few people alive today have been vaccinated against it.

Not surprisingly, an outbreak resulting from, say, the inadvertent or possibly intentional release of a synthetic smallpox virus from a lab could prove devastating worldwide.

Synthetic biology perhaps most clearly illustrates that the benign assumption most modern people share about new technology is dangerously misguided. We have many other examples. Recently, we’ve learned that propagandists and true believers alike have exploited Facebook to propagate obviously misleading information and outright falsehoods, an outcome that shouldn’t be all that surprising given the open nature of the platform.

We’ve now been disabused of the notion that social media will always and everywhere be a force of liberation and enlightenment. Facebook’s ongoing purge of what it regards as “fake news” and unreliable information continues; but this purge is accompanied by howls of protest from those affected who don’t agree with Facebook’s assessment, some justifiably so.

Synthetic biology poses an altogether different and more severe threat. It’s not just our hearts and minds at stake. It is our very lives. And, yet the risks of this biology are very much linked to the information revolution we’ve experienced in the last few decades.

Which is why the online publication of the findings of the team that assembled the horsepox virus created such a stir. The headline in Science promised a disturbing account: “How Canadian researchers reconstituted an extinct poxvirus for $100,000 using mail-order DNA.” The headline probably overplayed the threat a bit. But not by much.

Here’s why: “The technology and economics of large-scale DNA synthesis have driven the cost of gene synthesis down approximately 250-fold in just 10 years.” It is not unreasonable to expect that costs will continue to fall. The researchers who put together the horsepox virus (in order to study how to make a better smallpox vaccine just in case) tell us that the biological equivalent of 3D printers are now available to make DNA strands and that kits are available to aid assembly of viruses. (Readers may recall my previous piece about so-called CRISPR kits for editing genes of plants and animals now available online to ANYONE.)

The researchers also say they did the experiment for one other reason for which they have been roundly criticized: To show that it could be done. However, it turns out this is not the first dangerous virus to be constructed synthetically. A polio virus was constructed way back in 2002. (But this was a much less complex task than horsepox or smallpox would be.) The truth is that there are laboratories around the world experimenting with dangerous viruses, doing research to understand them better in order to protect public health. So, the danger of at least an inadvertent release has been around for a long time.

A book about Ebola entitled The Hot Zone included an account of an incident at a Reston, Virginia research lab involving monkeys infected with Ebola. The book brought widespread attention to the issue of inadvertent release. The monkeys died and four workers were infected. But the workers lived because luckily the Ebola contracted by the monkeys was from the one strain harmless to humans.

But, as one of the critics of the horsepox experiment explained:

The greatest risks posed by this experiment were not solely or primarily biosafety in the traditional sense of protecting the laboratorians or the surrounding community of people or animals from infection following an accident. The greatest risks posed by this work arose from the information conveyed in the paper that makes it easier to create smallpox. That is not a biosafety problem confined to that institution and its surrounding community. That is potentially a global risk.

The researchers defend synthetic biology in general and even their critics agree that this kind of biology has great promise for addressing human diseases such as cancer. Lost in such agreement is that fact that we know that much of the cancer humans contract is due to environmental exposure to toxins. Addressing that exposure though stricter regulation of industrial discharges and through stricter protocols for testing before new chemicals are allowed on the market are never discussed. It is like focusing on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by investing in technology that will extract those emissions from the atmosphere rather than trying to prevent the emissions in the first place.

But perhaps most disturbing of all is the discussion of risk versus benefits regarding a technology that could prove catastrophic to global populations if maliciously or carelessly released. As I have been writing again and again, technologies with downsides that include systemic ruin—and the deaths of hundreds of millions if not billions of people must be classed as such—should never be allowed to proceed.

No benefit can outweigh the collapse of the stability of civilization and the mass death that would proceed from that. And, make no mistake, a dangerous epidemic caused by a designer virus would first deplete the ranks of those who transport goods and people across the world, those who care for the sick including first responders and other medical personnel, and those who have broad contact with the public such as teachers, retail clerks, and many other types of service workers. Who is going to show up to work under these circumstances if they risk death? The whole world would come to a halt even if only a fraction end up dead.

This attitude will be called “anti-science” and “anti-progress.” First, although the construction of synthetic viruses is based on scientific knowledge, it is more properly understood as an application of science which we generally call technology. One can understand how to make synthetic viruses and decide the work is too risky to pursue.

Second, my attitude is not anti-progress. We should pursue research and technological applications which promise to mitigate climate change, enhance the soil, reduce toxins in our environment and food, protect biodiversity and improve human health. But we should not risk systemic ruin when we pursue these goals.

One more problem occurs to me for which I see no easy fix. Even if the rest of society and its governing bodies were to agree with my view, it would take an almost totalitarian control of information and intrusive surveillance of human activities to make sure no one was pursuing synthetic biology. One can pass laws making it illegal—just as it is now illegal to procure and own samples of smallpox virus except at two government repositories worldwide. But enforcing such a law when the instructions for making viruses are on the internet and the ingredients to make them are available online would be a truly daunting and disturbing task.

My guess is that we as a society will continue to pursue synthetic biology with only modest restrictions as the technology becomes increasingly cheap and automated until some self-styled religious zealot decides to do the insane: release a dangerous man-made pathogen into the environment that kills indiscriminately in an attempt to punish the wickedness of humankind because God instructed him to.

Unlike the sarin gas attack in 1995 in Tokyo carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, this death toll will not be confined to the immediate area of the release. Rather, it will propagate from person to person and then possibly across the globe through our extensive global transport network.

I give such a dire illustration to shake people out of the benign assumption about new technologies and to suggest to them that in some cases there really are no benefits which can outweigh risks.

Image: A chimera. Jacopo Ligozzi (ca 1590-1610). Via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ligozzi_(Una_quimera).jpg

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: Biotechnology