Countermeasures: A Dangerous Web of Misconception

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There is a misconception that all of the money and power in the music industry has shifted to the live sector and despite there being more No, they will not come! Companies must invest a Working the Shields Ferry is 'not your everyday job' says ferry master. The FBI clearly see it as a possibility, and it is perhaps easy to see why. Take the recent controversy surrounding man-made forms of the flu virus.

Last year, two teams of scientists — one led by Ron Fouchier at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, the other led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US — announced they had each mutated the H5N1 bird-flu virus in such a way that it could spread between mammals more easily.


Fouchier and Kawaoka argued they were trying to understand how natural viruses evolve into more dangerous forms, but their announcements sparked an international storm: should the work be published in full to help authorities prepare for a potential pandemic, or should it be withheld from the research community to prevent possible misuse by amateur scientists or even bioterrorists? As a result of months of pressure from scientific journals and notable names in the field, the work was eventually published last summer, but as a compromise the researchers agreed to a self-imposed moratorium on such work.

After a year of discussions, the ban has just been lifted. But some academics — and many within the biohacking community — are sceptical about such fears. Others point out that any bioterrorist who is focused on causing havoc, could do so by far simpler means. His work raised fears that rogue groups could create something similar, but he argues the complexity of the work is enough of a barrier.

He also cites previous examples of bioterrorism, which required little understanding of genetics and its techniques. For example, 11 years ago a number of American federal politicians were sent anthrax spores through the post, something that required a lot less effort than trying to reactivate polio in the lab.

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Similarly, the ricin toxin found naturally in castor beans has been manufactured and used as a bioweapon, but no use of synthetic ricin bacteria or man-made toxin has been heard of — it is much easier to isolate the poison from plants or seeds than produce it from genetically engineered organisms. But, the FBI are still wary. The biohacking community in the US has largely responded in kind.

Collectives such as Genspace in New York began working with the FBI early on, and the agency even helped them in their dealings with the local fire safety and health authorities.

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A spokeswoman for the agency told us there is currently no surveillance or investigation of any biohacker labs. One session at the conference asked the assembled group to think about possible worst-case scenarios. Her next slide showed Deb leaving the community lab to secretly work at home, before being arrested for experimenting with human pathogens and toxins. Even worse — for us at least — the fictitious slide showed newspaper stories where Deb was described as being part of the biohacker community.

The idea that well-meaning biohackers could help the FBI by reporting any suspicious activities, has many in the field worried, particularly those outside of the US. Of course no one in the biohacking community wants to see any rogue biopunks creating headlines that would bring the entire community into disrepute. To try to counteract this, the DIYbio community is running a survey that it hopes will dispel any misconceptions about its motives.

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  • Their code of conduct would include moratoria on certain kinds of experiments, a registration system and mutual voluntary inspections of labs by biohackers. But even this concerns some practitioners, who worry that a field that has flourished precisely because it is informal and unregulated, will be stifled.

    The idea is that biohackers from all over the world can go to the diybio. This way, according to Kuiken, people could operate in a safe manner, relying on personal responsibility rather than control. Of course, nobody knows if a stick or a carrot is the right tool as we enter the age of personal biotech. But whoever is given the task of devising rules will have to consider the virtues of having molecular biology among the masses — can personal biotech improve society, will it lead to valuable inventions and innovations, will it be a democratising force, will it help distribute wealth, economic and intellectual power more widely?

    These are all big questions for a field that is still in its infancy, says Ellen Jorgensen, president of the community biotechnology laboratory Genspace in New York. And you can argue that science is so complicated now, that DIY could not make any valid contribution, that you need to have too much expertise and infrastructure, something that DIY would never have. Jorgensen is optimistic, however. I want to see it happen!

    Of course, all the nice, well-meaning people we met during our long journey through the world of DIY biology are no guarantee that there isn't anyone out there putting their criminal energy into biotech. But limiting the work and the opportunities of the former just because of fear of the latter will do nothing to change that.

    Methods and materials, such as the ones we used, are on the verge of becoming available to a wider public. It is that public which will have to decide how to use biotech in the future.