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The Loss of Biological Innocence

Advances in biotech present dark possibilities and an editor’s dilemma.
March 1, 2006

When, if ever, should editors not publish a story they think is true, but they know is controversial? Well, if publication is dangerous or useless. That question was suggested by this month’s cover story by contributing writer Mark Williams (see “The Knowledge”).

Williams (for the record, my brother) spent 14 months investigating genetically engineered biological weapons. He immersed himself in their arcane biology, and he interviewed numerous scientists and security experts. But his journalistic coup was securing the candor of Serguei Popov, a former Soviet bioweaponeer.

Popov described how Biopreparat, the Soviet agency that secretly developed bioweapons during the Cold War, created recombinant pathogens that produced novel symptoms. Some of those symptoms were very horrible. In one case, Popov and his researchers spliced mammalian DNA that expressed fragments of myelin protein, the insulating layer that sheathes our neurons, into Legionella pneumophila, a bacterium responsible for pneumonia. In Williams’s account, “In test animals…the myelin fragments borne by the recombinant Legionella goaded the animals’ immune systems to read their own natural myelin as pathogenic and to attack it. Brain damage, paralysis, and nearly 100 percent mortality resulted.” But Biopreparat had more expansive ambitions than poisoning populations. The military scientists who ran the agency wanted bioweapons that could alter behavior, and they investigated using pathogens to induce memory loss, depression, or fear.

This information might be of only sinister, nostalgic interest, but for Williams’s thesis. He argues that the advance of biotechnology – in particular, the technology to synthesize ever larger DNA sequences – means that “at least some of what the Soviet bioweaponeers did with difficulty and expense can now be done easily and cheaply. And all of what they accomplished can be duplicated with time and money.” Williams explains how gene-sequencing equipment bought secondhand on eBay, and unregulated biological material delivered in a FedEx package, can be misused. He concludes that terrorists could create simple weapons like Popov’s myelin autoimmunity weapon, and states could engineer the more ambitious recombinant pathogens that Biopreparat contemplated.

All of this is tremendously controversial. Critics within the U.S. defense community dismiss Popov’s accounts of what Biopreparat achieved. Most security experts believe that creating any bioweapon – let alone a recombinant pathogen – is difficult, and “weaponizing” those agents is nearly impossible. And many biologists, whilst not as sanguine about the difficulties, think that a preoccupation with bioweapons is counterproductive for two reasons: first, because funding biodefense research tends to disseminate knowledge of how to develop such weapons; second, because we don’t have a very good idea of how to defend ourselves against them.

When I quizzed people involved with national security, they warned me off publishing. Our story might give our enemies ideas, they said. If we had no recommendations for improving public safety, we had better kill the piece.

These arguments have weight. Therefore, why publish? We had encouragement. Distinguished scientists who are familiar with bioweapons, including George Poste, the former chief scientist at SmithKline Beecham and the sometime chairman of a task force on bioterrorism at the U.S. Defense Department, were supportive. The scientists confirmed that the advance of biological knowledge offered malefactors new categories of weapons with new opportunities for violence and coercion. As Poste told me, “Biology is losing its innocence. For a long time, biology was irrelevant to national security. But that’s changing. The biological revolution means a determined actor can undoubtedly build a biological weapon.” Additionally, in February a long report by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council of the National Academies entitled “Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences” provided us moral support. It replicated much of our reporting and conclusions, and while we were sorry to be scooped, we were relieved to be in such respectable company.

Nevertheless, we took a number of precautions. We were careful to occlude any recipes for bioweapons. What detail we do provide is based on published research and has been widely discussed. Finally, in the interests of balance, we asked Allison Macfarlane, a senior research associate in the Technology Group of MIT’s Security Studies Program, to rebut our argument (see “Assessing the Threat”).

Yet, in the end, we published the story because we believed it was important. Modern biotechnology is potentially a threat to our welfare, but the life sciences will continue to advance. Thus, our best hope of countering the threat is to invest in research that will suggest a technological solution. But as Serguei Popov himself told us, “First we have to be aware.” Write to me at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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