A recent post about the looming specter of bioterrorism by William Lind due to ‘biohacking’ seems overblown to me. But before I get Lind, what I find particularly disturbing about hyping a non-existent bioterror threat is that it makes combating infectious disease–the stuff that kills millions worldwide–much harder due to unnecessary regulations and restrictions. Onto Lind:
For years, I have warned in these columns and elsewhere that the future weapon of mass destruction we should most fear is not a nuke. Rather, it is a genetically engineered plague, a plague no one has ever seen before and against which no one has any immunity. In the time it would take to identify the new disease, develop a vaccine, distribute the vaccine and have it become effective, modern societies could suffer death rates equivalent to those of the Black Death: up to 2/3 of the population.
Regrettably, it appears that dread future has now arrived.
And what is this “dread future”? ‘Biohacking’:
The May 12 Wall Street Journal carried a front-page story titled “In Attics and Closets, ‘Biohackers’ Discover Their Inner Frankenstein.”
In Massachusetts, a young woman makes genetically modified E. coli in a closet she converted into a home lab. A part-time DJ in Berkeley, Calif., works in his attic to cultivate viruses extracted from sewage …
These hobbyists represent a growing strain of geekdom known as biohacking, in which do-it-yourselfers tinker with the building blocks of life in the comfort of their own homes.
Developing nuclear weapons requires vast facilities. Even so significant a country as Iran must strain to its limits to design, build and operate the complex industrial plants required. The costs run in the billions of dollars.
In contrast, the Wall Street Journal writes of the woman in Massachusetts that
She’s got a DNA “thermocycler” bought on eBay for $59, and an incubator made by combining a Styrofoam box with a heating device meant for an iguana cage.
As usual, the Internet plays the role of Sorcerer’s Apprentice in this unfolding nightmare:
The (biohacking) movement has made big strides recently thanks to the commercial availability of synthetic DNA. This genetic material, normally found inside the nucleus of cells, can now easily be purchased online. That provides any amateur with the ingredients for constructing an organism.
The WSJ reassuringly notes that the government is interested in all this.
The E. coli manipulator got a phone call from a government security contractor: How did she build that lab? Did she know other people creating new life forms at home?
The woman, a Ms. Aull, says the worries are overblown. DIY biologists are trying to “build a slingshot,” she says, “and there are people out there talking about, oh, no, what happens if they move on to nuclear weapons?”
Well, my dear, the fact is that you and your fellow biohackers have moved on to nuclear weapons. Or, as I fear, something even more dangerous than nuclear weapons. One little “oopsie” in a basement lab could inadvertently unleash a plague.
I’ve worked with nasty pathogens, and Lind’s fears are, well, to be honest, ridiculous. First of all, bacterial viruses (bacteriophage), by themselves, are harmless. There are bacteriophage (‘phage’) that encode virulence genes which can be expressed in bacteria: the stx genes found in E. coli O157:H7. Stx-encoding phage are found in sewage, and E. coli that possess Stx phage are found in wild ungulates. The point is that the bioterror weapons are already among us. They have been among us for a very, very long time (that pesky evolution thingee…).
Phage can also enable MRSA to cause disease–and we don’t have to worry about terrorists for that. MRSA kills ~18,000 people annually. As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum on this blog, bioterrorism is essentially already rampant, in the form of hospital-acquired infections.
As to using bacteriophage to transfer genes, this is something that college undergraduates routinely do, never mind the average biotech company.
Then there is the fear of genetically-modified E. coli which virtually every microbiology lab (educational and research) uses. Until the advent of pyrosequencing, genomic sequencing involved the use of genetically-modified E. coli. So does making ‘human’ insulin (you didn’t think they ground up humans, did you?).
If there’s any danger in what ‘biohackers’ are doing, it’s that they’ll do something stupid and send themselves to the hospital (e.g., infecting a cut on their hands). As to working with more dangerous organisms, such as bubonic plague, well, this will be a very swift process of selection. These organisms are too dangerous to work with in your closet. Working with pathogens is really hard and will make you sick or dead without the proper facilities
The tragedy behind this misplaced bioterrorism fear is that it ignores the loss of life, particularly in developing countries, inflicted by ‘opportunistic pathogens’–the bacterial diseases that, in healthy people typically don’t cause disease and are part of the normal microbiome such as… E. coli. And placing even more restrictions will only make it harder to fight these clear, present, and real dangers.