No one knows when such hypothetical weapons will be real. But since Popov left Russia, the range and power of biotechnological tools for manipulating genetic control circuits have grown. A burgeoning revolution in “targeting specificity” (targeting is the process of engineering molecules to recognize and bind to particular types of cells) is creating new opportunities in pharmaceuticals; simultaneously, it is advancing the prospects for chemical and biological weapons. Current research is investigating agents that target the distinct biochemical pathways in the central nervous system and that could render people sedate, calm, or otherwise incapacitated. All that targeting specificity could, in principle, also be applied to biological weapons.
The disturbing scope of the resulting possibilities was alluded to by George Poste, former chief scientist at SmithKline Beecham and the sometime chairman of a task force on bioterrorism at the U.S. Defense Department, in a speech he gave to the National Academies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, in January 2003. According to the transcript of the speech, Poste recalled that at a recent biotech conference he had attended a presentation on agents that augment memory: “A series of aged rats were paraded with augmented memory functions…. And some very elegant structural chemistry was placed onto the board…. Then with the most casual wave of the hand the presenter said, “Of course, modification of the methyl group at C7 completely eliminates memory. Next slide, please.’”
The age of bioweaponeering is just dawning: almost all of the field’s potential development lies ahead.
The recent report by the National Academies described many unpleasant scenarios: in addition to psychotropic pathogens, the academicians imagine the misuse of “RNA interference” to perturb gene expression, of nanotechnology to deliver toxins, and of viruses to deliver antibodies that could target ethnic groups.
This last is by no means ridiculous. Microbiologist Mark Wheelis at the University of California, Davis, who works with the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, notes in an article for Arms Control Today, “Engineering an ethnic-specific weapon targeting humans is…difficult, as human genetic variability is very high both within and between ethnic groups…but there is no reason to believe that it will not eventually be possible.”
But commentators have focused on speculative perils for decades. While the threats they describe are plausible, dire forecasts have become a ritual – a way to avoid more immediate problems. Already, in 2006, much could be done.
Popov’s myelin autoimmunity weapon could be replicated by bioterrorists. It would be no easy feat: while the technological requirements are relatively slight, the scientific knowledge required is considerable. At the very least, terrorists would have to employ a real scientist as well as lab technicians trained to manage DNA synthesizers and tend pathogens. They would also have to find some way to disperse their pathogens. The Soviet Union “weaponized” biological agents by transforming them into fine aerosols that could be sprayed over large areas. This presents engineering problems of an industrial kind, possibly beyond the ability of any substate actor. But bioterrorists might be willing to infect themselves and walk through crowded airports and train stations: their coughs and sniffles would be the bombs of their terror campaign.
Difficult as it may still be, garage-lab bioengineering is getting easier every year. In the vanguard of those who are calling attention to biotechnology’s potential for abuse is George Church, Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics. It was Church who announced in December 2004 that his research team had developed a new high-throughput synthesizer capable of constructing in one pass a DNA molecule 14,500 bases long.