11/20/2007 - 07:00

Secret biological research sets a bad precedent

Is the availability of genetic information dangerous? Certainly. But so is driving a car, flying
to the moon, or falling in love. We do a lot of dangerous things, simply because the benefits
outweigh our concerns.

So, how dangerous is it to have sequence data available? As Gigi Kwik Gronvall wrote, it is
"potentially dangerous," i.e. there is the possibility for misuse. But how likely is the misuse by
terrorists? I would argue, not very. Sequence data require knowledge and background
information--or, as Cornell Professor Kathleen Vogel terms it "context"--to be translated into
useful information.

Besides context, successful gene synthesis from sequence data requires tacit knowledge--the type
of knowledge that is necessary to turn a recipe into a cake. Tacit knowledge is gained by
repetition and often goes unnoticed because most people simply do things as they were taught to do
them. The transfer of tacit knowledge requires long-term intensive contacts between people.

Keeping this in mind, I would argue that it is not easy to synthesize a virus, not even for
experts. It would be even more difficult to create a bacterium from scratch. There are roads to
developing a pathogen that are much easier to travel than gene synthesis, such as the ones alluded
to by Jens Kuhn.

The other participants of this roundtable seem to share my view that sequence data should remain
freely available. However, I sense some hesitation in their comments about whether certain very
specific data such as sequences of eradicated diseases or artificial pathogens should be made
public. This is a dangerous concept to entertain. Work on eradicated or artificial pathogens has a
particularly high potential for misuse. If a state carried out such work and the results were kept
hidden, suspicions would certainly arise among other states. Here, it is particularly useful to put
yourself in the shoes of states that are not close allies. How would they interpret your behavior?
If Russia, China, Iran, or India interpreted U.S. research of this sort as the first steps toward
an offensive capacity, they would likely begin or increase their activities along the same
lines.

If we agree that genetic data should remain freely available, what limits on the use of these
data are useful and possible? Here are two possibilities: Companies that synthesize genetic
sequences recently started to screen sequence orders for "dangerous" bits. The assumption is that
suspicious aggregations of orders for "dangerous" sequences, such as virulence factors or
consecutive parts of the smallpox genome, would raise an alarm. This would make things more
difficult for the "mid-level bad guy" who lacks the know-how and funds to synthesize sequences from
scratch. Another option is to track the global distribution of certain equipment. If we knew, for
instance, where all the high-speed gene synthetizers were located, we could keep a keen eye on how
they were being used.