Featured Article: Enhanced Research into Synthetic Biology
Enhanced Research into Synthetic Biology
by Sean R. Watterson
Synthetic biology is a field of science that draws from methodologies found in engineering disciplines, such as computer engineering, electrical engineering, control engineering, and computer science, to construct new biological systems or modify existing ones. The field has the potential to enable the creation of new and deadly biological pathogens without the need for specialized knowledge, large amounts of money, or sophisticated bioweapons programs. Since advances in synthetic biology are occurring rapidly, hostile actors with limited expertise and means may soon be able to design and employ biological weapons derived from these advances. To reduce the efficacy of a potential, synthetic, biological weapons attack on U.S. soil, the U.S. must identify domestic targets that are at risk for an attack, determine how a hostile actor would develop and employ a synthetically-developed bioweapon, and synthesize biological protections to prevent loss of life. In this article, I argue that to accomplish these goals, the U.S. interagency should, (1) identify vulnerabilities of U.S. citizens to biological weapons by conducting a “vulnerability assessment,” (2) develop its own limited supply of synthetic pathogens for research purposes, bound by the constraints of biological weapons treaty obligations, and (3) harness the power of these new technologies to develop synthetic protections such as inoculations, vaccines, antibiotics, and immuno-boosters. Failure to do so could result in the U.S. being poorly prepared to handle a potential biological attack.
The idea that synthetic biology could be used to create a deadly pathogen is already a reality. In 2016, virologist David Evans used synthetic biology to create de novo the horsepox virus at a cost of approximately $100,000 over the period of about six months. In doing so, Evans was the first to publicly demonstrate the ability to create a pox virus. While he is an expert on viruses and understands viruses much better than an amateur biologist, there are many others with his level of skill….
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Sean R. Watterson is a Submarine Systems Program Manager at the Naval Sea Systems Command. He received a M.S. Degree in WMD Studies as a National Defense University Countering WMD Graduate Fellow.