Saturday, March 11, 2006

Biowar for Dummies

So, I was just saying here a few days ago how easy it is now to design your own genes with easily available tools. Turns out that not only can you design genes, but it's much easier than I supposed to put them into a real live organism... for good or evil purposes.

Paul Boutin explains pretty clearly on his blog all that he recently learned about this.
Anthrax. Smallpox. Ebola. For thriller writers and policy crusaders, biological warfare was a standard what-if scenario long before anyone mailed anthrax to government and media offices in 2001. Pentagon war games like Dark Winter, held just before 9/11, and this year's Atlantic Storm suggested that terrorists could unleash germs with the killing power of a nuclear weapon.

Scientists, though, have always been skeptical. Only massive, state-sponsored programs—not terrorist cells or lone kooks—pose a plausible threat, they say. As the head of the Federation of American Scientists working group on bioweapons put it in a 2002 Los Angeles Times op-ed: "A significant bioterror attack today would require the support of a national program to succeed."

Or not. A few months ago, Roger Brent, a geneticist who runs a California biotech firm, sent me an unpublished paper in which he wrote that genetically engineered bioweapons developed by small teams are a bigger threat than suitcase nukes.

Brent is one of a growing number of researchers who believe that a bioterrorist wouldn't need a team of virologists and state funding. He says advances in DNA-hacking technology have reached the point where an evil lab assistant with the right resources could do the job.

Yeah, that's sort of worrisome, isn't it?


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