Promise for treating diseases and making chemicals offset by fears the field could also spawn new weapons, US committee warns

Developments in synthetic biology demand close scrutiny because the field poses a potential threat to humanity, warns a new interim report by the US National Academies. Although synthetic biology offers the opportunity to transform disease treatment and chemical manufacturing, among other areas, it could also enable the creation of novel types of weapons at unprecedented speeds, the National Academies committee said.

The authors of the preliminary report are particularly worried that synthetic biology – the creation or modification of existing lifeforms – could be used to recreate known pathogenic viruses, making existing bacteria more dangerous and creating harmful biochemicals via in situ synthesis. The field ‘blurs the line’ between chemical and biological weapons, the committee concluded. High potency molecules capable of being produced through simple genetic pathways are of particular concern because they could conceivably be developed with ‘modest resources and organisational footprint’, according to the expert panel.

The report asserted that synthetic biology will present new challenges that will need to be addressed by the Department of Defense and partner agencies. Overall, its authors urged the US government, in conjunction with the scientific community, to consider methods to better manage the emerging risk. They argued that strategies based on lists like the US’s select agents and toxins one will be insufficient to tackle the threats arising from the application of synthetic biology. ‘While measures to control access to physical materials such as synthetic nucleic acids and microbial strains have merits, such approaches will not be effective in mitigating all types of synthetic biology-enabled attacks,’ the panel asserted.