Synthetic Biology: Design for Destruction

  • DoD, DARPA Implementation
  • ELM - Reproducing living materials that self-heal or KILL
  • DNA-targeted bioweapons

We have passed the Rubicon as technology has allowed your food to become a weaponized delivery system.  A couple of years ago synthetic biology was released into the public food chain.  It is not labeled and few people know anything about this new synthetic biological system.  The Department of Defense (DoD) has been tasked with anticipating potential threats.  Synthetic Biology is engineered using the building blocks of creation so the technology is being incorporated into supplements, pharmaceuticals, infrastructure, chemicals, fragrances, and much more.  What will be the synergistic effect of Synthetic Biology as it commingles with other synthetic fabrications as well as interaction with the natural world?

Synthetic biology can and is a weapon of mass destruction (WMD).  Nature says, “synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes." Synthetic Biology is a dual-use technology which blurts the lines between legitimate applications can also be used for nefarious purposes.

Biomaterials for Post Disaster Environments

A significant amount of DoD research is centered on In an effort to harness beneficial aspects of this technology, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is has invested $135 million on one synthetic biology-related program, Living Foundries.  Currently DARPA programs for synthetic biology include Biological Robustness in Complex Settings, BRICS, which DARPA intends to, "safe transition of synthetic biological systems from well-defined laboratory environments into the more complex settings," Engineered Living Materials-which according to DARPA, "revolutionize military logistics and construction in remote, austere, high-risk, and/or post-disaster environments by developing living biomaterials that combine the structural properties of traditional building materials with attributes of living systems, including the ability to rapidly grow in situ, self-repair, and adapt to the environment."  ELM also, "The program aims to validate these new methods through the production of living materials that can reproduce, self-organize, and self-heal," as well as the Living Foundries, all utilizing biological systems to create materials for strategic use in defense applications.

Dual-use technologies are bio-inspired simulations that are complex, uncertain, and ambiguous.  According to the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), “synthetic biology tools compound the dual-use nature of standard technology and pave the way for conceiving of biology in increasingly abstract terms.

More Likely than Nuclear Bomb

The Global Challenges Foundation listed synthetic biology as one of 12 major global risks, with the possibility of an accident or terror-related incident occurring within 100 years as more likely than nuclear war. The Secretary-General of the U.N. Ban Ki-moon expressed concern with the interface of emerging technologies—including synthetic biology with WMD.

Little to No Regulation or Oversight

Open governments demonstrate a lack of true awareness regarding global capabilities for synthetic biology research and manufacturing.

While the private sector is typically not held to the same level of transparency as most national governments unless regulations and statutes require specific reporting. The Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars estimated that 192 companies worldwide partook in some aspect of synthetic biology research and development a few years ago and by the year 2021.  The market for Synthetic Biology is already over $1 billion with an expected increase of 24% thereafter, each year.

Although already deployed into the food chain a system capable of tracking and identifying synthetic biology capabilities has not been established to preserve food security while draconian regulations have forced most independent farmers and ranchers out of business. The Synthetic Biology Project, part of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, tracks government entities and companies that conduct synthetic biology research. It is an effort which is too little, too late.

Synthetic biology is a set of tools that can be used to create completely new forms of living systems or significantly alter existing ones. The eco-system is design, build, and test.

Threat of New Life Forms

Prospective organisms and/or systems are being designed using a suite of techniques, engineering everything from metabolic to phenotype to xenobiology.

Metabolic engineering allows scientists to alter pathways into a cell which could allow natural toxins to be more potent.  Genes can be moved easily from one organism to another, as we have seen with older genetic modification technologies, including viruses such as influenza. 

Xenobiology deploys components that do not naturally occur on Earth. The building blocks of nucleic acids are modified replacing sugar with another molecule producing non-existent biological components opening up a new world of possibilities of biological agents.

Congress, the intelligence communities, academia, and the private sector are all aware of the “existential risks” found with synthetic biology and genome editing and yet research, development, and deployment is escalating at a rate of new technologies every 6 weeks.   The Center for Strategic & International Studies has predicted that synthetic biology will allow for “DNA-targeted bioweapons” in the arsenal within 25 years (probably much sooner).

The grave dangers surrounding synthetic biology reach out further than the food supply although could inhabit or annihilate food supplies and that is novel virulent pathogens.  Through biotechnology and engineering pathogens can be made more virulent.  Engineers can also build designer pathogens from the molecular level upwards.  This was done in March of 2017 from horsepox which is eerily similar to smallpox. 

Extinction to Resurrection

Researchers played with the building blocks of horsepox which was extinct, then assembled them, in essence resurrecting the virus.  Why were they allowed to do this?  What possible good can come from this other than climbing the mountain because we can?  Neither animals nor humans would have an innate defense system against this engineered 'pox'.  While horsepox is not transmissible to humans at this time researchers could build it in such a way that is transmissible to you.  Because of this experiment the World Health Organization (WHO) announced in 2015, “with the development of these technologies, public health agencies have to be aware that henceforth there will always be the potential to recreate variola virus, and therefore the risk of smallpox re-emerging can never be fully eradicated."

Re-Imaging Food

Synthetic Biology is taking us down the yellow brick road of fake foods where a scientific method is being used without doing testing and reviews.  If and when it is ever tested it would in all likelihood be private industry paying the bill and the Third Party Evaluator is typically beholding to the entity signing the paycheck.  Nothing from nature is take home for these companies.

Fake Dairy:  Perfect Day 

Fake Cheese:  Real Vegan Cheese 

Fake Burger:  Impossible Foods

Fake Wine:  Ava Winery

Lab Meat:  MosaMeat

Unlimited Potential for Destruction

Needless to say, the potential is high and the probability of a cascading disaster due to introduction of Synthetic Biology into the environment is astronomical.  As Synthetic Biology envelops the earth mankind is sending synthesized life into space to colonize other planets.  We can now pollute other worlds as well as terra firma.

Openwetware had some interesting insights relating to the the dangers and morality of Synthetic Biology:  Technology is a tool that can be used for good or evil, hence its dual function.  These are not my words, but theirs, and should cause us to think about the merits or dangers of this technology.

Many technologies have the potential to be dangerous either through their direct application or through society's (inappropriate) reliance on their continued successful operation. Imaginable hazards associated with synthetic biology include (a) the accidental release of an unintentionally harmful organism or system, (b) the purposeful design and release of an intentionally harmful organism or system, (c) a future over-reliance on our ability to design and maintain engineered biological systems in an otherwise natural world. In response to these concerns we are (a) working only with Biosafety Level 1 organisms and components in approved research facilities, (b) working to educate and train a responsible generation of biological engineers and scientists, (c) learning what is possible (at what cost) using simple test systems. All told, we believe that the understanding and abilities to be gained from synthetic biology justifies its responsible exploration and development.

More recently, MIT, the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. have announced a new study of the societal implications of synthetic genomics. Press releases: MIT, CSIS and Venter Institute. More information also available at Synthetic Genomics Study.

What about ethical or moral issues?

Do we inherit and passively pass along the living world or do we have a responsibility to interact rationally with it? If we are going to interact with the living world should we ground this interaction at a level of resolution (i.e., molecular) that allows for the precise description of our actions and their consequences? (interesting thought)

The NonGMOProject has issued a stern warning about Synthetic Biology that we should all heed, until proven safe, take caution.  As for those feigning ignorance...well, sometimes consequences are very difficult to live with once it goes rogue in the wild.


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Celeste has worked as a contractor for Homeland Security and FEMA.  Her training and activation's include the infamous day of 911, flood and earthquake operations, mass casualty exercises, and numerous other operations.  Celeste is FEMA certified and has completed the Professional Development Emergency Management Series.

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