What risks are inherent in new bio science?

R Taylor NRZM57A at prodigy.com
Wed Mar 6 10:31:03 EST 1996

I have a question for professional virologists, microbiologists, and 
molecular geneticists: What is the potential for evil application of our 
burgeoning ability to understand and manipulate pathogenic organisms? 
Could this technology, if deliberately applied with evil intent, be 
enormously destructive, even apocalyptic?

Some background: I have a Ph.D. in chemistry, and my thesis research was 
in biophysics. For several years now, I have specialized in communicating 
various biomedical research findings to scientists. I have seen firsthand 
the astonishingly creative and immensely productive uses researchers find 
for our growing understanding of all aspects of biological science. Just 
one example: Researchers in Texas and elsewhere are far along in a 
project to express antigens from pathogenic organisms in edible plants, 
so that people might eat the plants, and thereby acquire immunity from 
the pathogens. (The mucosal route for vaccine presentation is of great 
current interest. The edible vaccine notion combines this research thrust 
with a convenient and cheap method of producing and delivering the 
antigens). This is only one example; anyone in biomedical science knows 
that there is no end to the creativity and intellectual energy energizing 
researchers today. 

But: every technology, every intellectual triumph in science, has been 
bent to the task of killing people. Atomic physics is only the most 
dramatic example. Given that record, what is the potential for a 
scientist, or group of scientists, to deliberately modify a pathogen--or 
to stitch together from various sources--something that would have world-
changing potential--a virus that would spread wildly to kill a huge 
portion of the global population, or a bacterium that only attacked a 
specific ethnic group, or something else that is too horribly clever to 

One thing that is clear from reading I've done so far is that many of the 
biological weapons we already have--some of which have been around since 
World War II--are exceedingly dangerous, and not all that hard to 
manufacture. Most  would-be bioterrorists would not bother to engineer 
anything new when a few hundred gallons of anthrax spores, properly 
aerosolized and dispersed over a metropolitan area from a small private 
plane, could kill a million people (see, for example, a 1993 report from 
OTA on weapons of mass destruction). 

But I'm not thinking about terrorists--I'm asking a broader, perhaps more 
theoretical, question: Given knowledgeable people with some funding and 
bad intent, what is the potential for evil application of our current 
ability to manipulate microorganisms?  My experience over the years is 
that bringing this subject up among scientists gets about the same 
reaction as making a rude noise at a fancy dinner party. But if the a 
horrible potential is there, don't biomedical scientists have a 
responsibility to think about it? 

I've posted this message on a few biological science newsgroups. I am 
trying to organize some thoughts on this subject, and I'd like to hear 
from anyone with an informed opinion on it,  either by direct e-mail or 
public postings to this space.

R. Taylor
nrzm57a at prodigy.com


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