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New report: If misused, Synthetic Biology could expand the possibility of creating new weapons

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Synthetic biology expands the possibilities for creating new weapons — including making existing bacteria and viruses more harmful — while decreasing the time required to engineer such organisms, concludes a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  Although some malicious applications of synthetic biology may not seem plausible right now, they could become achievable with future advances.

Synthetic biology, a field that creates technologies for engineering or creating organisms, is being used for a variety of purposes that benefit society. Applications include treating diseases, improving agricultural yields, and remediating pollution.  Even though synthetic biology holds great promise in many areas, it is possible to imagine harmful uses that could threaten U.S. citizens and military personnel.  To better prepare for potential misuse, the National Academies were asked by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to develop a framework for evaluating security concerns related to advances in synthetic biology. The task included assessing the levels of concern warranted for such advances, and recommending potential options to anticipate and respond to such threats.

“In and of itself, synthetic biology is not harmful.  The level of concern depends on the specific applications or capabilities that it may enable,” said Michael Imperiale, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Michigan and chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report.  “The U.S. government should pay close attention to this rapidly progressing field, just as it did to advances in chemistry and physics during the Cold War era.”

In its interim report, the committee proposed a strategic framework to identify and prioritize potential areas of concern associated with the field and to help biodefense analysts as they consider the current and future synthetic biology capabilities.  The framework is designed for analyzing existing biotechnology tools in order to evaluate the dangers at present, understand how various technologies compare with and complement each other, and assess the implications of new experimental outcomes.

In the final report, the committee used this framework to analyze potential vulnerabilities enabled by synthetic biology.  The results were based on the availability and ease of use of the technologies, the challenges of producing an effective weapon, the expertise and resources required to carry out an attack, and both proactive and reactive measures that might be taken to help mitigate the effects of an attack.  The committee ranked the synthetic biology capabilities from highest relative level of concern to lowest in the figure below.

THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES OF SCIENCES, ENGINEERING, AND MEDICINE


You will find a german summary cum evaluation prepared by our member GASB (German Association of Synthetic Biology) here.

Eine Zusammenfassung und Bewertung des Reports aus Sicht unseres Mitglieds GASB (German Association of Synthetic Biology) finden Sie hier.