Have you ever heard of directed evolution or synthetic biology?
Laurie Garrett, the Council of Foreign Relations’ Senior Fellow for Global Health, recently put out a video about the potential dangers of such cutting edge biotechnology.
The official name for the dangerous scientific research Garrett brings to our attention is dual use research of concern, meaning that what some scientists publish as research can get into the wrong hands and be used as biological weapons to contaminate and even exterminate the population.
Since scientists know that harmful viruses and pathogens will evolve naturally evading drugs and treatment, scientists often times alter the genetics of the disease in order to predict its mutations and be better prepared to combat its new form.
For example, a H5N1 (bird flu virus) researcher named Dr. Ron Fouchier modified the H5N1 virus in the lab so that it was contagious between ferrets by merely coughing on each other. In this case, Fouchier engineered a non-contagious disease to be easily spread from person to person, making a harmful virus exponentially more hazardous. This created debate about whether or not such research should be published, as it essentially contains the blue print for a pandemic. But, as Garrett says in the video, of course it was published, and such research will continue to be published; this is only the beginning of dual use research of concern, as we enter this bio-tech revolution.
Just as Michael Crichton pointed out in Jurassic Park over 20 years ago, scientists are so concerned with what they can do that they often don’t stop to think whether they should do it. But, like Garrett says this isn’t science fiction, this is reality.
So, the research was published. But, just how easy can it be to make such a harmful microorganism? Garrett reveals that with the rapid prevalence of 3-D printers, the technology to print organic material and living organisms is not far behind. That technology paired with the recently popularized at home genome sequencers, makes the rapid acquisition of things such as pandemic pathogens possible.
What do you think about dual research of concern? At what point does such research become more harmful than helpful?
Watch Garrett’s video to help formulate your opinion.
Or, see Garrett in person at The Atlantic Meets the Pacific, hosted by UC San Diego Extension and The Atlantic Magazine. The conference will be held during October 2 through 4 at Scripps Seaside Forum and the Qualcomm Institute in La Jolla, California. For more information on speakers and registration, please visit atlanticmeetspacific.com