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On Patrol with America’s Top Bioterror Cop

Will garage gene editing unleash a biological plague? Special Agent Ed You is ready if it does.
October 20, 2016

Seen something strange growing in a petri dish in a friend’s basement? Know an angry graduate student working odd hours in a pathogen lab?

You might want to call Edward You.

As a supervisory special agent in the weapons of mass destruction directorate in the FBI’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, You is effectively America’s top biology cop. His job: track fast-moving developments in labs and make sure they don’t lead to a bio-attack.

It’s a tough assignment. Methods of engineering microӧrganisms' DNA are readily available and getting more powerful. What’s more, a new “do it yourself” movement is starting to shift genetic engineering out of large institutions and into DIY labs or people’s homes, where it’s harder to keep tabs on.

“He’s the person you call when you don’t know who to call.”

People who know him say You, who joined the FBI in 2005, has stretched the boundaries of his role at the agency, influenced policy makers to look at blind spots, and carried out a friendly, out-in-the-open campaign to infiltrate communities of “indie” biologists by getting to know them.

You refers to his network of sources as a “web of detection” that allows him to learn what scientists are worried about. So far, he says, he hasn’t been in any car chases. It is really more the biology equivalent of “911 calls about people driving recklessly,”  he says.

You’s approach is well tailored to the problem of biological threats. Nuclear weapons can be controlled by keeping secrets or by tracking special high-speed centrifuges that turn uranium into bomb fuel. But biological expertise can’t easily be contained. The challenge is that the same germs, techniques, and skills needed to study disease can also be used as weapons.

The result: potentially dangerous technology is freely available. In February, the U.S. declared gene editing, a new way of easily modifying DNA, to be a potential weapon of mass destruction. At the same time, home kits to modify the genes of bacteria using the method, called CRISPR, are on sale online for $140.

That has created the theoretical possibility an evildoer could develop a deadly designer germ, or re-create an old one like smallpox. In practice, such engineering is not simple to do, but it may be in the near future. “Barriers to entry are lower for doing something malicious, and that jeopardizes all of us,” says Nevin Summers, executive director of MIT’s Synthetic Biology Center. “The next generation of kids going into biology will have to solve some tough issues about security.”

The FBI is a law enforcement and domestic intelligence agency. That means You is on the lookout more for homegrown biological Unabombers than for foreign agents.

FBI special agent Edward You talks to students during the 2013 International Genetically Engineered Machine competition.

Bio-crime also remains very rare—though when it does happen, someone with scientific training is often to blame. In 1996, a laboratory technician at St. Paul Medical Center, Diane Thompson, told colleagues she’d left blueberry muffins and doughnuts in the kitchen. But she’d laced them with the bacteria Shigella, sending nine people to the hospital (she was sentenced to 20 years). The deadly 2001 anthrax attack through the U.S. Postal system, the FBI concluded, was carried out by a mentally disturbed military scientist.

You says part of his role is to help scientists learn how to spot such “insider” threats. Attacks are often preceded by a suspect acting out, in inappropriate e-mails or outbursts, working strange hours, or using too many supplies. Yet most academic biologists, working on curing cancer or devising new tests, are oblivious to the warning signs. “Preventing the misuse of technology is a shared responsibility,” says You. “Now more than ever we need to have an army of white hats to be on the lookout for black-hat activity.”

You was in action earlier this month during SynBioBeta, a two-day conference in San Francisco that draws a mix of large companies, like DuPont, startups making lab-grown meat, and bio-hobbyists. He worked the room with handshakes and air kisses while his partner from the local FBI field office, a tattooed agent with a nose ring, handed out her card. “If there is anything you want to tell us, we can send it up to the mother ship in Washington,” she told one entrepreneur.

You was dressed in a blue suit, making himself known to the crowd. On the event’s second day, he showed up in an untucked shirt and ascot cap. People milled around the coffee and cookies and ogled lab equipment on display. I asked You if he came to such events armed. “We’re all special agents,” he answered ambiguously.

You earned a master’s degree in molecular biology and later took a job at Amgen. Since joining the FBI he has also helped teach the government “to be less dumb” about biology, says Ken Oye, a political scientist at MIT.

In 2004, the FBI showed just how poorly prepared it was when it detained a Buffalo bio-artist, Steve Kurtz, later charged under the Patriot Act, after finding bacterial cultures in his home. It was touted as a big blow against bioterrorism, but a judge eventually threw the case out as meritless. “There was nothing there, it was a harmless bug, and you could have licked the petri dish,” says Rob Carlson, an investor and analyst who had his own garage lab.

By 2009, the bureau had changed course. It began sponsoring the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, an annual fair where 3,000 student teams engineer microbes. (This year, the FBI will set up a career booth.) And it courted DIY biologists, members of a counterculture movement whose projects include efforts to manufacture open-source insulin, dairy-free cheese, and other cheeky affronts to commercial biotechnology.

Rather than persecute the group—which attracts its share of fringe characters—under You’s direction the FBI has lent it credibility and sometimes financial support. Sebastian Cocioba, who operates a laboratory in a spare bedroom where he lives in New York, says he has a “go-to contact” in the FBI’s regional field office. “I chime in on a regular basis to let her know what’s up,” he says. 

I learned how effective You’s network is while trying to learn more about him. At least one person reported my questions directly to him, part of a stream of tips from far corners of biotechnology that now flow into his D.C. office. Megan Palmer, a biosecurity scholar at Stanford University, says about twice a month she refers people to You. These have included a biotech company manager alarmed by a customer’s questions and a person from the DIY community worried by an experiment they’d heard about. “He’s the person you call when you don’t know who to call,” says Palmer.

“Preventing the misuse of technology is a shared responsibility.”

You is often the first to hear about scientists’ darkest worries. Lately some of these have been connected to the gene-editing method CRISPR, which can be used to create self-spreading gene alterations in insects or DNA-slashing viruses. He is “going all over the place and asking the right questions,” says Palmer.

Another security risk that You has been looking into is connected to large DNA and biological databases. The U.S. is mounting a million-person precision medicine study that will gather such data, and vast commercial troves exist already. Even though it’s not yet clear why intruders might want to hack such data, You is sponsoring workshops on “safeguarding the bioeconomy” that will delve into the possible hazards.

One thing the FBI hasn’t done is describe the results of its work. How many bio-threats are out there? How many get investigated? And how many originate inside government germ labs, which have a record of mishaps? Palmer says scientists also want to know how the information they provide the FBI gets used, but right now communicating with agents is a one-way street.

He wouldn’t describe any of his investigations, but You admits he is pursuing bio-threats that might never materialize. “A threat implies intent, and we haven’t seen that yet,” he says. “But as things become more widely available, more widely distributed, the bar gets lower, and the possibility of an incident gets higher.”

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