Synthetic Biology -- Past Timeline,
Current Status, and Future Outlook

Viruses have already been built in laboratories from basic building blocks for a very long time. It is already an old technology.

"In 2000, researchers at Washington University, reported synthesis of the 9.6 kbp (kilo base pair) Hepatitis C virus genome from chemically synthesized 60 to 80-mers.”

“In 2002 researchers at SUNY Stony Brook succeeded in synthesizing the 7741 base poliovirus genome from its published sequence, producing the second synthetic genome. This took about two years of painstaking work.”

“In 2003 the 5386 bp genome of the bacteriophage Phi X 174 was assembled in about two weeks. In 2006, the same team, at the J. Craig Venter Institute, had constructed and patented a synthetic genome of a novel minimal bacterium, Mycoplasma laboratorium and were working on getting it functioning in a living cell. ...

“In May 2010, Craig Venter's group announced they had been able to assemble a complete genome of millions of base pairs, insert it into a cell, and cause that cell to start replicating. ... Venter plans to patent his experimental cells …" (Emphasis added.) (reference: “Syn-Bio-Wiki”)

In 2011, in a surprise address to the Biological Weapons Convention in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated: "Less than a year ago, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula made a call to arms for, and I quote, 'brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry to develop a weapon of mass destruction.'"(reference: “Clinton-UN”)

Clinton also officially acknowledged the generally accepted situation that "A crude but effective terrorist weapon can be made by using a small sample of any number of widely available pathogens, inexpensive equipment, and college-level chemistry and biology" and noted that "it is not possible, in our opinion, to create a verification regime" for preventing biological weapons. Yes, “not possible”. Definitely not feasible to control this tech.

There was recognition that a big part of the threat of biotechnology and super pathogens is that they could be created by a small laboratory anywhere on the Earth without being detected, such as by DIY bio or biohacking, i.e., it does not require a government or institution. In defense circles, this is called "an expanded range of actors". In the case of biotechnology, the capabilities are vastly expanding year by year as the technology develops.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statements came just a few months after two independent developments, by a scientist in the Netherlands, and by a team led by a Japanese scientist at the University of Wisconsin, both announced that they had modified the H5N1 virus (aka “bird flu”) in the laboratory to become far more virulent than its naturally occurring form. The H5N1 virus has been 56% fatal, one of the most dangerous viruses known to humans, but its naturally occurring version is difficult to transmit human-to-human so that there has not yet been a human pandemic, though it has killed very large numbers of birds. What the scientists did was modify it to be much more easily transmitted by air and respiratory infection between mammals, which was observed in ferrets. These scientists were apparently planning to publish their research openly soon after Clinton's address.

The US government's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a division of the National Institute of Health (NIH), requested they not publish the details. The NSABB has no legal authority, and is only an advisory organization. The authors disagreed with the decision but agreed to adhere to it. All of the authors had already received funding from the NIH and it might be presumed they would continue to receive funding... unless they did not follow the request. What would their response have been if not funded by NIH?

After also being contacted by the NSABB, the two scientific journals, Nature and Science (two highly established journals), still planned to publish the two papers minus some of the details. The journal Science stated it would agree with the NSABB to refrain from publishing the details only if the government created a system whereby scientists worldwide could access the details if they had a legitimate need to know the information. However, at least one of the scientists had already presented his work at a major conference. (reference: SciAm-Albert)

Indeed, the editor of Science Magazine said "This finding shows it’s much easier to evolve this virus to an extremely dangerous state where it can be transmitted in aerosols [i.e., by coughing or sneezing] than anybody had recognized.” (reference: NYTimes-1220)

This kind of news has stimulated interest worldwide, resulting in more laboratories wanting to compete, but also including bad actors such as terrorists. You can be sure that the news media will broadcast such gains very prominently, because it sells their service and makes them money, and can selfishly rationalize away the greater interests of our species.

The genome of the H5N1 virus can be found on the internet and copied or downloaded, as can the genomes of other pathogens. Of course, hackers might pick up a lot more things than ordinary people, from various targets, including research results of modifications. However, entirely new, alien pathogens can be created from scratch, too.

Around 2015, DNA printers starting coming out onto the market. Over time, they are becoming more compact, cheaper, more capable, and the process more automated. For example, the Hudson Robotics “new Synthetic Biology Workstation automates the entire portion of the pipeline from Gene Assembly through Plasmid Preparation … All of these functions are automated and integrated into a single, easy to use system.” (reference: Hudson-Robotics-A)

By 2023 (the time of this document), “Benchtop” DNA printers were available to DIY labs. “Current machines can synthesize stretches of about 200 base pairs, but the report notes that over the next 2 to 5 years, the sequence lengths could increase to as many as 7000 base pairs. That’s the size of the smallest viruses, and big enough to splice together large pathogen genomes.” (reference: Science-org-A-2023)

“Synthetic biology workstations” is a huge market. For example, see the “Synthetic Biology Workstation Market Report, Global Forecast From 2023 To 2031”. (reference: dataintelo-A-2023) Leaders promote many benefits, such as vaccines and other disease treatments, agricultural bioengineering for food production and biofuels, and countless other things. This appeals to the mass public for the benefits, and appeals to companies wanting to make money in this vast new market and new technology race. Risks are often downplayed.

On the other hand, as many experts have warned, some people will think it’s fun or interesting to design and create new kinds of organisms, recklessly, and of course bad actors may try to create extremely destructive new things. New kinds of plants or toxins could wreak havoc on our food production, create grave damage to the environment, and potentially spread around the planet. New kinds of organisms feeding on natural plants could do similarly.

There are still many scientists who rationalize their money making research as "not that dangerous" and/or as important for "defensive" purposes (kind've like other arms races). Many believe the laboratories are secure from microscopic leaks. (This is despite many reported leaks in the past in the USA, and the extreme difficulty of preventing leaks of any microscopic pathogens at all.)

Researchers race to be the first not only to make money, but also for higher personal status by achievement, to get patents, and/or just to brag.

Know-how spreads quickly. When I attend a scientific conference, the main motivation is to meet people and talk about things, not just to attend the presentations, because I can usually read those presentations online or elsewhere. On the other hand, personally meeting people and having discussions can result in a lot of information which I would not get any other way, and lots of information can be gotten which is off the record. People just talk, out of ego, curiosity, open scientific dialogue, or soliciting work.

It is possible that the first time we experience a super pathogen might be the last time, if it wipes us out, so that there may be no second chance and no learning from experience.


References cited in the text above:

Syn-Bio-Wiki: Wikipedia article on Synthetic Biology

Clinton-UN: Speech to the UN General Assembly on December 11, 2011, by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Source of quotes: Foreign Policy

SciAm-Albert: Scientific American, Sept 19, 2011, which gave early publicity to Ron Fouchier's method of making the H5N1 far more contagious.

NYTimes-1220: Seeing Terror Risk, U.S. Asks Journals to Cut Flu Study Facts, New York Times, December 20, 2011, by Denise Grady and William J. Broad.

Science-org-A-2023: Benchtop DNA synthesis raises alarms, May 19, 2023, by Robert Service.

Hudson-Robotics-A: Hudson Robotics page on Synthetic Biology Workstation

dataintelo-A-2023: Dataintelo's Global Synthetic Biology Workstation Market ... Forecast From 2023 To 2031, a $4200 publication, 129 pages, with online summary and free sample report.


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