Tuesday, October 23, 2001, Agence France Presse
Scientists Fear Miracle of Biotech
Could Also Breed a Monster
PARIS -- The events of the past six weeks have led some biologists
to fear that mankind's fast-growing store of genetic knowledge may
be less of a treasure chest than a Pandora's box.
By tweaking bacterial and viral DNA, a gene terrorist could create
an agent far more devastating than the bugs featuring in the
post-September 11 anthrax attacks.
Among the nightmares: antibiotic-resistant strains of plague,
tuberculosis and intestinal germs; a genetically-modified killer
flu; and pathogen "cocktails," such as a mixture of smallpox and
"In light of the September 11 tragedy, we can no longer afford to be
complacent about the possibility of biological terrorism," warns a
commentary published next month in the specialist journal Nature
"The revolution in biology could be misused in offensive biological
weapons programs, directed against human beings and their staple
crops and livestock."
The 20th century saw seven countries by known count -- Britain,
France, Germany, Iraq, Japan, the Soviet Union and the United States
-- embark on programs to identify, manufacture and weaponize killer
But experts worry the next generation of these weapons will exploit
knowledge about the genome, with calamitous effect.
A couple of years from now, there may be as many as 70 pathogens
whose genetic code has been cracked. The genome of cholera, leprosy,
the plague and tuberculosis are already in the public domain, as is
a food-poisoning bug, Staphylococcus aureus, that is becoming
resistant to antibiotics.
DNA sequencing aims to encourage research into new drugs that
prevent, block or reverse those diseases -- potentially, the
greatest leap forward in medical history.
But there is also fear that a bioterrorist with an advanced college
degree, lots of money and a good laboratory could use this
readily-available data, inserting or swapping genes in bacteria and
viruses to create new, horrifyingly virulent agents.
These fears pre-date the current anthrax alert.
"Progress in biomedical science inevitably has a dark side, and
potentiates the development of an entirely new class of weapons of
mass destruction: genetically engineered pathogens," a US scientific
thinktank, the JASON Group, warned in the late 1990s.
These arms pose "extraordinary challenges for detection, mitigation
There is no known risk of any such attack at present.
But the potential for one certainly exists. Indeed, there are at
least two documented cases in which biologists have accidentally
created a doomsday bug.
One was a strain of the common intestinal bug Escherichia coli that
was 32,000 times more resistant to the antibiotic cefotaxime than
The superbug's creator was Willem Stemmer, chief scientist with
Maxygen, a California pharmaceutical research firm, who was
exploring the function of resistance genes in bacteria.
He destroyed his invention in response to an appeal by the American
Society for Microbiology.
In a case published last January, a pair of Australian scientists,
Ron Jackson and Ian Ramshaw, unwitting created a vicious strain of
mousepox, a cousin of smallpox, among laboratory mice.
They, too, destroyed the virus and then went public with their
findings to draw attention to the potential abuse of biotechnology.
If a new infectious weapon were unleashed, little could be done
other than identify new cases and isolate them, itself a huge task
in today's open, mobile society.
Claire Fraser, who works at The Institute for Genomic Research
(TIGR) in Rockville, Maryland, and Malcolm Dando, a peace studies
expert at Britain's Bradford University, say in the Nature Genetics
commentary that the picture is not entirely gloomy.
"The same advances in microbial genomics that could be used to
produce bioweapons can also be used to set up countermeasures
against them," they say.
One early advance could be a DNA chip capable of spotting any
biowarfare agents, even if they contained genes slotted in from
other species, thus providing early warning of an attack.
And fast-growing knowledge about the genome and cell functions could
help tailor new vaccines and antibiotics, although such drugs
typically need several years of safety testing before being
authorized for public use.
International cooperation and ethics training of civilian biologists
are vital for strengthening the safeguards against bioterrorism,
Efforts to build a tough verification protocol to the 1972
Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) have been blocked for
years -- ironically, by the United States, which said the secrets of
its pharmaceutical industry could be at risk from intrusion.
Negotiations resume in Geneva in November.
As for action by scientists themselves, some voices are calling for
tougher vetting of research proposals and a greater effort to train
students about potential dangers arising from civilian lab work.
"It's time for biologists to begin asking what means we have to keep
the technology from being used in subverted ways," says Harvard
University molecular biologist Matthew Meselson.
Copyright © 2001 AFP