Bioterrorism

Playing God for the first time…

by Julian Savulescu

With his new paper Craig Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into it’s destiny. He is not merely copying life artificially as Wilmut did or modifying it radically by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally. Creating life from the ground up using basic building blocks.

At the moment it is basic bacteria just capable of replicating. This is a step towards something much more controversial: creation of living beings with capacities and natures that could never have naturally evolved.

The potential is in the far future, but real and significant: dealing with pollution, new energy sources, new forms of communication. But the risks are also unparalleled. We need new standards of safety evaluation for this kind of radical research and protections from military or terrorist misuse and abuse. These could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable. The challenge is to eat the apple without choking on the worm.

Other posts in PracticalEthicsNews on synthetic biology

Changing the Building Blocks of Life: Playing God and Being gods

Humane Evolution

Should bio-scientists think about bio-weapons?

Following the September 11 attacks and subsequent Anthrax attacks, the US began introducing new biosecurity regulations as a counter to bioterrorism. The centrepiece of the new regulatory framework has been a list of 'select agents' – pathogens with particular potential for use in weapons of mass destruction. Agents on the list are subject to special regulatory measures limiting how the agents can be stored, transported and used.

Last week, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published an analysis of the effects of the new regulations. The authors estimate that there has been a two to five fold decrease in the ratio of scientific progress to amount of funding for research on select agents over the relevant period. Picking up the story, an article in The Scientist magazine claims that the apparent loss of efficiency is due to the chilling effect of the new regulations on research (though see the comments for some alternative explanations). It quotes scientists bemoaning the huge amount of paperwork imposed by the regulations and noting the difficulties that they create for international collaboration and, given the need for extensive background checks and psychological testing, staff recruitment.

It's interesting to consider the extent to which the Scientist's complaints (and scientists' worries more generally) are are an objection to the way that biosecurity is being done, or to the very idea of biosecurity.

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