Impact of Synthetic Biology and Non-State Actor WMDs


By MAJ Stephen Hummel

Synthetic biology can be defined as “the rational design and construction of modified or new biological systems/organisms with desired functionality, or the synthesis of organisms de novo, accomplished through the application of engineering principles to make specific genetic changes using the techniques of molecular biology.”i While this definition is broad and complex, the application of synthetic biology to modify organisms is straightforward. The protein and system Cluster Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) was first discovered in 1993 by Francisco Mojica as a mechanism for bacteria to prevent viral invasion. It was the work of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier published in 2012 that demonstrated how CRISPR, particularly the CRISPR-Cas9 system, worked and postulated that it could be used to edit genes. This scientific discovery spurred a revolution in synthetic biology as a result of its ease of use and the hope for its application in treating genetic diseases. This hope is tempered, however, by an emerging threat landscape that envisions the possibility that biological weapons might not require graduate-level expertise at a state-run laboratory rather could be facilitated by non-state actors outside the realm of international norms and conventions due to the increasing democratization of synthetic biology and its associated technologies. This threat can be best understood through examination of two critical categories: materials and knowledge.

Prior to the biotechnology boom of the past decade, access to biological materials was limited. While some biotech companies existed, offering limited services at a high cost such as protein purification, most biomaterials had to be acquired by a researcher in his/her laboratory. For example, if a researcher wanted to study a specific protein-DNA interaction, he/she would spend weeks to months preparing the necessary reagents, then isolating and purifying the desired protein covalently linked to the DNA sequence. These procedures often took multiple iterations to achieve the required quantities and purity levels for the desired experiment. These tedious and laborious steps are now a thing of the past. Not only can these chemicals, buffers, and columns be purchased in complete kits, but it is often feasible to purchase the desired protein and sequences in microgram quantities for a few hundred dollars. For example, by early 2020, multiple companies were selling the receptor binding protein, commonly referred to as the ‘spike protein,’ for the SARS-CoV-2 virus for about four hundred dollars.ii-iii Not all biomaterials and kits come from well-established companies. A bacterial CRISPR kit and a home genetic engineering kit can be purchased for about a thousand dollars from a biohacker website/lab, to include a refurbished thermocycler used to increase the number of a genetic sequence.iv It should be noted that there are minimal differences between a bacterial and a human cell CRISPR kit. Access to specific biological components, such as a protein or nucleic acid sequence, does not mean, however, someone can simply develop a biological weapon; rather, access to these materials helps reduce the material threshold from difficult to relatively easy.

With respect to the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) threat spectrum, chemical weapon agents remain the easiest WMD to create due to the abundance of chemical precursors, as demonstrated by the Islamic State’s development and rudimentary employment of sarin. On the other end of the threat spectrum, nuclear weapons remain the most difficult to acquire, develop, and employ due to the scarcity of and security surrounding fissile material. With respect to biological weapons, previously only state actors had the intellectual, technological, and financial capacity to develop and employ biological weapons.

Once tightly coupled with access to materials was access to biological knowledge, however this paradigm is also shifting. As stated in a September 2021, War on the Rocks article, however, “New technologies are also making it easier for state and non-state actors to acquire, enhance, and use WMD.”v This is particularly true with respect to biological weapons. No longer is an advanced degree and a large university-level lab required to develop a biological weapon. For instance, growing entities such as the Do-It-Yourself Biology (DIYBio) community, particularly outside of the United States, are not regulated, thus enabling the sharing of information and tacit lab knowledge that is not readily found in scientific For example, some in the DIYBio community have posted video classes demonstrating human tissue engineering.vii While the intent of these videos is not nefarious, nefarious actors now have rapid access to knowledge once previously only acquired through years of mentorship and experience in a biological sciences lab. Such knowledge has facilitated the ability to modify bacterial and viral pathogens by biohackers and other non-state actors. The capability to de novo synthesize a virus of approximately 200,00 base pairs in the manner Dr. David Evans did in 2017 using commercially available genetic material and Dr. He Jiankui’s “designer babies” using CRISPR to delete the CCR5 gene to prevent HIV infection currently remains beyond the capability of the biohacker, but these applications highlight the possibility of non-state actors.

Access to biomaterials and knowledge are critical for the development of a biological weapon, though not the sole requirements, which also includes modest monetary support and some infrastructure depending on the scale. Development of a biological weapon also does not automatically ensure successful employment of a biological weapon since biological pathogens are sensitive to light, temperature, carbon dioxide concentrations, and heat.

Synthetic biology and its corresponding biotechnology growth have undoubtedly altered the biological weapons threat landscape. The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the 2020 global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic have illustrated the threat of naturally occurring biological pathogens, to say nothing of engineered pathogens. The global economic impact and social unrest attributed to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic likely has non-state actors interested in how employ such WMDs to disrupt society. Many synthetic biology applications are still in their infancy, but as these technologies enable greater access to biomaterials and knowledge, the impact and threat of biological weapons by non-state actors will only increase.

About the Author

MAJ Stephen Hummel is currently a PhD candidate in the Biology Department at Boston College. Previously, he served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a USAREUR CBRN Plans Officer, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Life Science at the United States Military Academy, a Nuclear Operations Officer on a Nuclear Disablement Team, and most recently as the Deputy, Commander’s Initiatives Group at 20th CBRNE Command. The views expressed in this report are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Boston College, the Department of Chemistry and Life Science, the United States Military Academy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government. 

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