Playing with Pandora: Biotechnology, Synthetic Biology and Global Security


by Mr. Frank Rando, CBRNE – Protective & Biomedical Countermeasures SME, University of Arizona, USA and Ms. Dee Ruelas, Clinical Specialist in COVID-19 testing and vaccination services, USA

In 1944, the Journal of Experimental Medicine, published the groundbreaking discovery that DNA is the molecule holding genetic information.

Later, after additional intense research had been conducted by scientists such as Oswald T. Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarthy, proving that DNA instead of protein is the “hereditary molecule”, scientist Friedrich Miescher pursued the study of proteins, histochemistry, the chemical composition of cells and the cells’ nuclei. Hence, Miescher was able to discover a substance dubbed “nuclein” from the nucleus of human white blood cells.

What Miescher had actually isolated were nucleic acids, among which deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) was derived.

Let us fast forward to J.D. Watson and F.H. C. Crick, who did not discover DNA but were able to formulate an accurate explanation of the molecule’s double-helical structure.

The realization that DNA was indeed,” the molecule of life”, and found in all living organisms, fueled the imaginations, and hopes of many researchers.

Later with the advent of biotechnology and genetic engineering, it was found that life itself at the molecular and genetic levels could be manipulated to modify biological and biochemical processes and the characteristics of a variety of living organisms.

The science of molecular biology, and its offspring biotechnology, came of age in the 1970s and envisioned genetically enhanced seeds for increased global agricultural productivity resistant to pests and diseases, molecular / biological treatments and novel drug development for devastating illnesses such as neuromuscular pathologies, various forms of cancer, and even mental illness. The possibilities were endless and included genetically modified organisms that could biodegrade oil spills and remediate hazardous waste sites.

“Gene-splicing “and other biotechnological techniques became well known but not without apprehension among several members of the scientific community and citizens in general.

Many of these benevolent R&D activities yielded results meant to improve and enhance the human condition.

Conversely, biotechnology was also viewed as a double-edged sword, as it became evident in the scientific community that it was a “dual use” technology that could be used for nefarious purposes to modify, enhance, and create microorganisms and toxins, modulate immune responses, and even regulate physiological processes such as cardiac function. These could be weaponized and used against individual targets (e.g., debilitating effects or assassination) civilian populations, and military forces.

Synthetic biology (SynBio) is a term coined in 1912 by the French chemist Stephane Leduc, however, it has only recently become an umbrella term to describe the interface between molecular biology and hardcore engineering.

The roots of synthetic biology can be attributed to a sentinel publication by Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod in 1961. Insights from their study of the lac operon (biological “on/off” switch) in E.coli led them to postulate the existence of regulatory circuits or molecular networks for cellular regulation.

Tom Knight, a computer engineer with a penchant for bioscience, is credited as the founder of synthetic biology. Knight believes that by utilizing synthetic biological techniques and processes, that living organisms can be “built” with mechanical precision. Over the years, Knights vision of constructing life has been realized several times.

Tremendous advances in SynBio have been achieved in multiple areas including life sciences, biomedicine, industrial development, and environmental bio – remediation.

The Human Genome Project has made it possible to decode and understand the functions of hundreds of human genes and has provided insights and potential to correct errant genes and develop targeted medical therapies.

Biotechnology and SynBio have raised international concerns over biosafety, biosecurity and even cyberbiosecurity, that may expose populations and the environment to unknown hazards.

How would a synthetic novel microorganism behave or interact in an ecosystem?

How could it affect immunity or other physiological functions if animals or humans are exposed?

Moreover, molecular biology and biotechnological techniques can be utilized to create de novo pathogens, toxins, biological response modifiers and other substances that can be weaponized to conduct bioterrorism or biowarfare.

When even a college student can follow the genetic “blueprint “of a pathogen such as monkeypox on the Internet, we need to rethink and reinforce and carefully monitor our biodefense capabilities.

In closing, the ability to alter or create life forms carries with it an awesome obligation to the international community.

Research and development activities must be guided by prudent policy – making, comprehensive risk assessments, stringent biosafety and biosecurity controls and procedures and protective countermeasures.


1. J.Exp.Med. (1944) Https//

2. Wolf, G. Friedrich Miescher, The man who discovered DNA, Chemical Heritage 21,10-11, 37-41

3. Watson, J.D.& Crick (1953) F.H.C. A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid, Nature 171, 737-738

Authors: Bio

Mr. Frank Rando currently serves as an allied health programs educator / lead instructor and healthcare emergency preparedness/medical readiness /public health preparedness and tactical, operational – disaster medicine and homeland security Subject Matter Expert , educator , instructor and curriculum designer. He has served in instructional, guest speaker and consultative roles for DHS-FEMA, various components of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium , DoD, industry, academia , health , safety and regulatory entities, emergency services organizations and healthcare.

He recently served during the COVID-19 public health emergency as a clinician and clinical researcher and also served in medical and health care support as a clinician for US Customs and Border Protection.

Frank is also an experienced clinician, first responder and an occupational – environmental health scientist with real world experience in hazardous materials management , hazards and pollution control, biosafety, industrial ,environmental and inhalation toxicology, environmental epidemiology ,exposure and risk assessment and emergency response .

Frank has also received advanced training in Integrated Biological -Chemical Response from the US Army -Dugway West Desert Test Center and the National Ebola and Special Pathogens Training Centers.

Frank’s experience includes public safety roles in law enforcement ,pre-hospital medicine/EMS and military duty as a Nuclear ,Biological and Chemical/CBRN Specialist ,NBC medical defense instructor Special Forces Medical Sergeant , Dive Medical Technician ,Intelligence Sergeant and Medical Intelligence Analyst.

Ms. Dee Ruelas possesses over 35 years of dedicated professional experience in various roles in public safety/ emergency services, teaching and instruction, healthcare, environmental health and safety, emergency preparedness, community resiliency and Christian ministry. Dee was also a decorated public safety-emergency medical communications specialist for the City of Tucson Fire Department and worked for the Tucson Municipal Court, where one of her roles was serving as the Fire Prevention and General Safety Officer for the municipal courts system.

Currently, Dee has been serving as a clinical specialist in COVID-19 testing and vaccination services and served as a medical and healthcare support specialist for US Customs and Border Protection.

Dee is the former Director of the City of Tucson Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and is a DHS-Certified CERT Instructor, National Association of Emergency Medical Technician Tactical Emergency Casualty Care (TECC) Instructor and a Certified Stop the Bleed Instructor.

Dee is also trained and serves as an experienced instructor and consultant in hazardous materials, incident command, explosives recognition, medical decontamination, active shooter countermeasures, emerging infectious diseases, mental health first aid, refugee medicine and general health and safety, including roles as a subject matter expert, guest speaker, and instructor for the State of Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

She has also been trained by the National Ebola Training Center and the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health Dee also is the owner and senior proprietor for Teach 2 Prepare, a consultancy and training entity.

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