Challenges to biosecurity from advances in the life sciences.

Author:Bonin, Sergio

"Ring farewell to the century of physics, the one in which we split the atom and turned silicon into computing power. It's time to ring in the century of biotechnology." (1)

This article summarizes the results of a qualitative risk assessment project on the biosecurity implications of developments in synthetic biology and nanobiotechnology carried out by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI). (2)


Since the anthrax letter scare in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, attention in security policy discussions has shifted away from biological weapons and bioterrorism. It became increasingly clear that the acquisition of the necessary expertise and resources, as well as the successful execution of a biological attack, are far more complex than previously thought. Future advances in the field of biotechnology, however, might have the potential to change that. Even though the possible features and true potential of the coming biological revolution heralded by many observers is still a matter of controversy, it seems prudent to assess the security policy challenges of progress in biotechnology at an early stage, while allowing for the unhindered development of beneficial applications.

Forecasts for our future suggest that the revolution in biotechnology will bring about a transformation of society with the potential to yield enormous benefits. Nowhere is this development more visible than in the cutting-edge fields of synthetic biology and nanobiotechnology. The stated aim of these disciplines is both ambitious and controversial--the transformation of biology from a natural science into an applied engineering discipline.


Largely owed to the development and ongoing advancement of automated machines that can sequence (i.e., read) and synthesize (i.e., write) genetic material such as DNA from chemical precursor substances, synthetic biology promises to enable the modification or creation of microorganisms for the production of pharmaceuticals, the remediation of polluted sites and the generation of biofuels. Although there is no single, agreed upon definition of "synthetic biology", it can be broadly understood as "the deliberate design of biological systems and living organisms using engineering principles". (3)

Within synthetic biology, a number of approaches can be distinguished. One basic possibility is to synthesize the entire genome, or parts thereof, of a known microorganism. Today, many scientists order DNA fragments via the Internet from commercial DNA synthesis providers. In another approach, attempts are made to construct a minimal genome reduced to the essential genes required for life in order to serve as the chassis for mounting genetic modules. At the same time, there is intense research into the development of such standardized genetic modules or biological circuits that can be added to the minimal genome in order to carry out predefined tasks--along the lines of modular construction in many industries. That...

To continue reading