Disarmament Insight


Monday, 28 January 2008

Synthetic biology & weapons: How soon is now?

There have been some interesting disarmament-related developments in the last week:

- In a think tank report, a group of former senior Western military commanders has called for a major change to NATO's approach to defending its members, insisting that the first-strike use of nuclear weapons is an "indispensable instrument", and claiming that there is "simply no realistic prospect of a nuclear-free world". (Paul Rogers and Jeffrey Lewis have posted useful critiques of this report.)

- Meanwhile, opinion editorials continue to appear that reflect the call reiterated by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger and others for renewed efforts on nuclear disarmament.

- As Patrick Mc Carthy reported, the UN's Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon gingered up the Conference on Disarmament here in Geneva with his appraisal of its inability to get back to work after a decade of inactivity.

- Paul Wolfowitz, former American deputy secretary of defence and an architect of the 2003 Iraq war - and of course former World Bank boss forced to resign over an ethics scandal - has been appointed to chair a U.S. advisory board on arms control.

All of these are newsworthy developments, although right now media attention seems increasingly turned toward jitters in world financial markets, especially in the wake of a breaking trading scandal at a prominent French financial institution.

But an item of great significance was confined largely to the weekend edition newspaper features and the science pages. That is, last week a team funded by biotech entrepreneur Craig Venter announced the penultimate step toward the creation of artificial life: the world's first artificial organism.

What's the big deal?

Back in 2002, scientists reported in the journal Science that they had 'made' a virus, which they assembled from separate components, all of which they made synthetically. This was big news, but the process took two years and a large scientific team.

About 18 months later, Craig Venter and his team carried out a similar task with a different virus, but they did it in two weeks. It was much quicker this time around because commercial production of some of the virus components were now available, enabling technicians in the lab to make quicker progress, without the need to know how to recreate the initial steps - a more 'engineering-like' approach.

Venter announced he would try to do the same thing with bacteria. Bacteria - unlike viruses - are definitely 'alive'. Now, the team from the J. Craig Venter Institute has built the first bacterial genome from the raw components of DNA. It's not yet 'alive', but it's very close.

The magazine Wired was quick to point out that the news is hardly earth-shattering in its own right. But as developments occurring so closely together in time, it indicates that Venter's colleagues are close to being able to assemble a synthetic organism in a process in which it's not essential to understand all of the individual scientific steps. To paraphrase Drew Endy's useful (but very budget) short introduction to synthetic biology available on YouTube:

Synthetic biology isn't making a specific thing. It's how you make something.
What we're seeing here is another inexorable step toward moving from "the science of biology" to more of a "black-box" engineering approach in which, like the graphical front-end of computer operating systems like Windows, Linux or Mac OS X, we can perform functions without the need to understand or programme the underlying binary computer code from scratch. In other words, soon it won't be necessary to go through a decade of training to create an artificial organism, you just need sufficient knowledge and equipment to assemble it.

This has big implications for efforts to prevent the hostile use of the life sciences - biological weapons. For ten years now, I've been a participant or observer - and always a supporter - of international efforts to prevent poisoning and deliberate spreading of disease by means of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). What has always struck me is that in such an environment it's easy to get stuck in the long now: policy makers and diplomats know that big technological changes in the life sciences are on the way, and will have major ramifications for the effectiveness of the BWC regime. A cursory glance at the documents of the BWC's review conferences of the 1990s shows that many of the life science advances spoken of almost as science-fiction then, such as synthetic biology, are here and now for us today. But these advances don't come with blinking arrows or a clear guide to their implications.

How will humanity make use of synthetic biology for its benefit, while preventing harm to ourselves, each other, or to our environment? I really don't have any concerns about what Venter and his colleagues are doing, per se. They're legitimate innovators, and there's absolutely no question of any hostile intent behind what they're doing. But it's nevertheless a wake-up call.

Among others, I've argued in the past that the increasing intangibility and diffusion throughout society of biotechnological and other related developments this century will mean that orthodox disarmament and arms control processes aren't sufficient on their own to stem their risks. Increasingly, understanding and addressing intent is going to be crucial to managing the risks of misuse of the life sciences for hostile purposes as "dual-use" technology that will inevitably flow from advances like the Mycoplasma genitalium team's work becomes cheaper, easier to use, and spreads. Otherwise, regulatory frameworks for preventing hostile misuse of advances in the life science won't be able to keep up. The question is, can the BWC and related regimes like the Chemical Weapons Convention adapt to these challenges?

John Borrie

This blog post was assembled synthetically with the invaluable help of Dr. Piers Millett of the BWC Implementation Support Unit. Responsibility for any errors is entirely the author's.

Picture of MIT biologist Drew Endy's comic book,
Adventures in Synthetic Biology, retrieved from the U.S. National Institutes of Health website. More info here.