Biotechnology risk

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Biotechnology risk is a form of existential risk that could come from biological sources, such as genetically engineered biological agents.[1][2] These can come either intentionally (in the form of bioterrorism/biological weapons) or unintentionally (through the accidental release of engineerer viruses). A chapter in biotechnology and biosecurity was published in Nick Bostrom's Global Catastrophic Risks, which covered risks such as viral agents.[3] Since then, new technologies like CRISPR and gene drives have been introduced.

While the ability to deliberately engineer pathogens has been constrained to high-end labs run by top researchers, the technology to achieve this (and other astonishing feats of bioengineering) is rapidly becoming cheaper and more widespread. Such examples include the diminishing cost of sequencing the human genome (from $10M USD to $1000), the accumulation of large datasets of genetic information, the discovery of gene drives, and the discovery of CRISPR.[4]

Gain of Function Mutations[edit]


Pathogens may be intentionally or unintentionally genetically modified to change their characteristics, including virulence or toxicity.[2] When intentional, these mutations can serve to adapt the pathogen to a laboratory setting, understand the mechanism of transmission or pathogenesis, or in the development of therapeutics. Such mutations have also been used in the development of biological weapons, and dual-use risk continues to be a concern in the research of pathogens.[5] The greatest concern is frequently associated with gain of function mutations, which confer novel or increased functionality, and the risk of their release.


A group of Australian researchers unintentionally changed characteristics of the mousepox virus while trying to develop a virus to sterilize rodents as a means of biological pest control.[2][6][7] The modified virus became highly lethal even in vaccinated and naturally resistant mice.[8]


In 2011, two laboratories published reports of mutational screens of avian influenza viruses, identifying variant which become transmissible through the air between ferrets. These viruses seem to overcome an obstacle which limits the global impact of natural H5N1.[9][10] In 2012, scientists further screened point mutations of the H5N1 virus genome to identify mutations which allowed airborne spread.[11][12] While the stated goal of this research was to improve surveillance and prepare for influenza viruses which are of particular risk in causing a pandemic,[13] there was significant concern that the laboratory strains themselves could escape.[14] Marc Lipsitch and Alison P. Galvani coauthored a paper in PLoS Medicine arguing that experiments in which scientists manipulate bird influenza viruses to make them transmissible in mammals deserve more intense scrutiny as to whether or not their risks outweigh their benefits.[15] Lipsitch also described influenza as the most frightening "potential pandemic pathogen".[16]


In 2014, the United States instituted a moratorium on gain of function research into influenza, MERS, and SARS.[17] This was in response to the particular risks these airborne pathogens pose. However, many scientists opposed the moratorium, arguing that this limited their ability to develop antiviral therapies.[18] The scientists argued gain of function mutations were necessary, such as adapting MERS to laboratory mice so it could be studied.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity also has instituted rules for research proposals using gain of function research of concern.[19] The rules outline how experiments to be evaluated for risks, safety measures, and potential benefits; prior to funding.

In order to limit access to minimize the risk of easy access to genetic material from pathogens, including viruses, the members of the International Gene Synthesis Consortium screen orders for regulated pathogen and other dangerous sequences.[20] Orders for pathogenic or dangerous DNA are verified for customer identity, barring customers on governmental watch lists, and only to institutions "demonstrably engaged in legitimate research".


Following surprisingly fast advances in CRISPR editing, an international summit proclaimed in December 2015 that it was "irresponsible" to proceed with human gene editing until issues in safety and efficacy were addressed.[21] One of the mechanisms that CRISPR can cause existential risk is through gene drives, which are said to have potential to "revolutionize" ecosystem management.[22] Gene drives are a novel technology that have potential to make genes spread through wild populations like wildfire. They have the potential to quickly spread resistance genes against malaria in order to rebuff the malaria parasite P. falciparum.[23] These gene drives were originally engineered in January 2015 by Ethan Bier and Valentino Gatz – this editing was spurred by the discovery of CRISPR-Cas9. In late 2015, DARPA started to study approaches that could halt gene drives if they went out of control and threatened biological species.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios". Retrieved 3 April 2016. 
  2. ^ a b c Ali Noun; Christopher F. Chyba (2008). "Chapter 20: Biotechnology and biosecurity". In Bostrom, Nick; Cirkovic, Milan M. Global Catastrophic Risks. Oxford University Press. 
  3. ^ "Global Catastrophic Risks: Nick Bostrom, Milan M. Cirkovic: 9780199606504: Books". Retrieved 3 April 2016. 
  4. ^ "FLI – Future of Life Institute". Retrieved 3 April 2016. 
  5. ^ Kloblentz, GD (2012). "From biodefence to biosecurity: the Obama administration's strategy for countering biological threats". Int Aff. 88 (1): 131–48. PMID 22400153. 
  6. ^ Jackson, R; Ramshaw, I (January 2010). "The mousepox experience. An interview with Ronald Jackson and Ian Ramshaw on dual-use research. Interview by Michael J. Selgelid and Lorna Weir". EMBO Reports. 11 (1): 18–24. doi:10.1038/embor.2009.270. PMC 2816623Freely accessible. PMID 20010799. 
  7. ^ Jackson, Ronald J.; Ramsay, Alistair J.; Christensen, Carina D.; Beaton, Sandra; Hall, Diana F.; Ramshaw, Ian A. (2001). "Expression of Mouse Interleukin-4 by a Recombinant Ectromelia Virus Suppresses Cytolytic Lymphocyte Responses and Overcomes Genetic Resistance to Mousepox". Journal of Virology. 75 (3): 1205–1210. doi:10.1128/jvi.75.3.1205-1210.2001. PMC 114026Freely accessible. PMID 11152493. Retrieved 13 July 2014. 
  8. ^ Sandberg, Anders. "The five biggest threats to human existence". Retrieved 13 July 2014. 
  9. ^ Imai, M; Watanabe, T; Hatta, M; Das, SC; Ozawa, M; Shinya, K; Zhong, G; Hanson, A; Katsura, H; Watanabe, S; Li, C; Kawakami, E; Yamada, S; Kiso, M; Suzuki, Y; Maher, EA; Neumann, G; Kawaoka, Y (2 May 2012). "Experimental adaptation of an influenza H5 HA confers respiratory droplet transmission to a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus in ferrets". Nature. 486 (7403): 420–8. doi:10.1038/nature10831. PMC 3388103Freely accessible. PMID 22722205. 
  10. ^ "The Risk from Super-Viruses – The European". Retrieved 3 April 2016. 
  11. ^ Herfst, S; Schrauwen, EJ; Linster, M; Chutinimitkul, S; de Wit, E; Munster, VJ; Sorrell, EM; Bestebroer, TM; Burke, DF; Smith, DJ; Rimmelzwaan, GF; Osterhaus, AD; Fouchier, RA (22 June 2012). "Airborne transmission of influenza A/H5N1 virus between ferrets". Science. 336 (6088): 1534–41. doi:10.1126/science.1213362. PMC 4810786Freely accessible. PMID 22723413. 
  12. ^ "Five Mutations Make H5N1 Airborne". Retrieved 3 April 2016. 
  13. ^ "Deliberating Over Danger". The Scientist. 1 April 2012. Retrieved 28 July 2016. 
  14. ^ Connor, Steve (20 December 2013). "'Untrue statements' anger over work to make H5N1 bird-flu virus MORE dangerous to humans". The Independent. Retrieved 28 July 2016. 
  15. ^ Lipsitch, M; Galvani, AP (May 2014). "Ethical alternatives to experiments with novel potential pandemic pathogens". PLOS Medicine. 11 (5): e1001646. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001646. PMC 4028196Freely accessible. PMID 24844931. 
  16. ^ "Q & A: When lab research threatens humanity". Harvard T.H. Chan. Retrieved 28 July 2016. 
  17. ^ Kaiser, Jocelyn; Malakoff, David (17 October 2014). "U.S. halts funding for new risky virus studies, calls for voluntary moratorium". Science. Retrieved 28 July 2016. 
  18. ^ Kaiser, Jocelyn (22 October 2014). "Researchers rail against moratorium on risky virus experiments". Science. Retrieved 28 July 2016. 
  19. ^ Kaiser, Jocelyn (27 May 2016). "U.S. advisers sign off on plan for reviewing risky virus studies". Science. Retrieved 28 July 2016. 
  20. ^ "International Gene Synthesis Consortium (IGSC) - Harmonized Screening Protocol - Gene Sequence & Customer Screening to Promote Biosecurity" (PDF). International Gene Synthesis Consortium. Retrieved 28 July 2016. 
  21. ^ "Scientist Call For Moratorium on Human Genome Editing: The Dangers Of Using CRISPR To Create 'Designer Babies' : LIFE : Tech Times". Retrieved 3 April 2016. 
  22. ^ ""Gene Drives" And CRISPR Could Revolutionize Ecosystem Management – Scientific American Blog Network". Retrieved 3 April 2016. 
  23. ^ "'Gene drive' mosquitoes engineered to fight malaria : Nature News & Comment". Retrieved 3 April 2016. 
  24. ^ "Why FBI and the Pentagon are afraid of gene drives". Https:. Retrieved 3 April 2016.