Sunday, July 09, 2006

Bioterror Watch - Security and Hobbyists

Over at MIT's excellent Technology Review site, there's an interview with Drew Endy, an MIT biotech engineer who recently helped organize the Synthetic Biology 2.0 conference, during which an entire day was devoted to discussing security concerns, ie how to keep terrorists from getting their hands on the DNA for a microbial weapon. The result was the Synthetic Biology/SB2 Declaration, in which

The researchers pledged, for example, to develop better software to detect when orders for dangerous DNA sequences have been placed with DNA synthesis companies, and they recommended that scientists work only with companies who use such software.

Which is an excellent idea. Given the potential of biological warfare, it only makes sense that there should be some stringent security being used at the companies involved in synthesizing DNA. Not all do, at the moment:

Most of the recommendations in the declaration revolve around using software to detect when a dangerous order has been made. This isn't as easy as you might think: people don't usually request whole genomes, just small fragments. Given as there's a lot of overlap between the genomes of harmless symbiotes and dangerous pathogens, there are problems with this approach:

DE: One limitation is the high false positive rate. If you're comparing the requested sequence against a set of sequences that includes the entire genome of a pathogenic bacterium, many of those genes look like genes of E. coli [bacteria commonly used in research]. Sorting out what's actually versus apparently dangerous is slow and expensive. It often requires a PhD to manually make the decision. A second limitation is the fact that it's naive to ask a computer program looking at DNA sequences to infer the intent of the designer of the DNA sequence. Instead, you want the software nested in a decision-making process. Who is ordering the DNA and where is it being shipped? As important, by asking these questions it helps to ensure that the people designing the DNA and their local community are paying attention to issues of biological safety and security.

And that comment about paying as much attention to who's doing the ordering as is paid to what is ordered leads to my only really problem with the plan as presently constituted (or at least, as laid out by Dr. Endy.) Earlier in the interview, he has this to say:

DE: First, we want to make sure that the use of DNA synthesis technology is subject to the same community and institutional oversight mechanisms that have been used successfully with recombinant DNA work for the past 30 years. The main challenge here is that DNA synthesis technology is becoming easy to access anonymously via the Internet. Thus, we are asking DNA synthesis companies to work together to develop an open framework that can be used to ensure that all synthesis orders are placed by qualified individuals who have proper authority for handling the requested DNA.

Sounds pretty innocent, right? Make sure all the people ordering genetic material are licensed, authorized professionals. How better to make sure no dirty terrorists get their hands on it? Well, there's just one problem with that suggestion: it would, I think, gut the embryonic hobbyist community. This short piece at Wired gives a glance at where things are now:

Eugene Thacker is a professor of literature, culture and communications at Georgia Tech and a member of the Biotech Hobbyist collective. Just as the computer hobbyists sought unconventional applications for computer circuitry, the new collective is looking for "non-prescribed uses" of biotechnology, Thacker said.

The group has published a set of informal DIY articles, mimicking the form of the newsletters and magazines of the computer hobbyists -- many of which are archived online. Thacker walks readers through the steps of performing a basic computation using a DNA "computer" in his article "Personal Biocomputing" (PDF). The tools for the project include a $100 high school-science education kit and some used lab equipment.

Other how-to articles guide readers through cultivating skin cells and "Tree Cloning" -- making uniform copies of plant tissue.

As the piece at Wired makes clear, there's a strong parallel with the early computer hobbyists, guys that did a lot to advance computing technology for nothing more than the simple joy of working with new technology. Let's not forget that the giants of the modern IT industry (people with names like Gates and Jobs) came out of these communities.

If companies did start issuing blanket refusals to synthesize DNA for non-accredited hobbyists, it would crush these communities. There's precedent: once again from the Wired article, the case of Steve Kurtz:

All the members of the collective are familiar with the case of Steve Kurtz, a professor and artist who has had to defend himself against accusations of "bio-terrorism" after local police happened upon his amateur home lab in May 2004.

He says his case has had a moderate "chilling effect."

"Amateurs need experts," Kurtz said. "We come to them with ideas and ask them for help. Scientists are (now) a lot more hesitant to get involved."

Kurtz adds that Tepnel, the company selling a biokit used to conduct a homebrew test for genetically modified organisms designed by Critical Art Ensemble, now refuses to sell to the general public.

As much as the prospect of a synthetic plague causing a dieback worries me, I also wouldn't want to severely jeopardize economic and technological growth by crushing hobbyist movements; these have a tendency to be massive sources of innovation, especially in fields where the barriers to entry - at least in terms of capital - are low and falling.

Whether or not companies do adopt a policy of only selling to in-group members (ie universities and corporations), it can only ever be a stopgap. At some point - and probably sooner than later - it will become possible for people to synthesize their own DNA, at which time any security procedures used by the synthesis companies would be moot.

That's why I'd forget all about persecuting hobbyists, and instead look for network solutions. In the long run, the only real way to deal with bioterror is a sort of technological immune system. The first line of defense would be vigilance: keeping an eye out for potential pandemics (as is currently being done with avian influenza) and attempting to synthesize effective countermeasures, antibiotic or antiviral as the case may be, beforehand. The second is to respond fast when there is an outbreak, as happened with SARS: rapid quarantining, rapid genetic sequencing of the pathogen, and rapid development of a counteragent. At the moment such a network is already developing, consisting primarily of a partnership between corporations and various national and international government organizations (this is one of the very few cases where I'm all for government involvement.) However, I'm of the opinion that a fully mature bioterror defense network would almost have to include hobbyists. What they lack in resources, they'd make up for in numbers. A volunteer organization of biotech hobbyists would be invaluable for detecting potential threats, developing vaccines on short notice, and most anything else that required a distributed effort. Shutting such organizations down before they even get a chance to get strikes me as a hysterical, counterproductive move.


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