• Biosecurity and synthetic biology: it is time to get serious

    Synthetic biology has only been recently recognized as a mature subject in the context of biological risk assessment — and the core focus has been infectious diseases. In the case of biosecurity, we’re already dependent on biology [with respect to food, health etc.] but we still have an opportunity to develop biosecurity strategies before synthetic biology is ubiquitous. There is still an opportunity to act now and put norms and practices in place because the community is still relatively small. “If scientists are not taking care of biosecurity now, other people will start taking care of it, and they most likely will start preventing researchers from doing good science.”

  • Distinguishing virulent from harmless bacteria to help biological surveillance

    Biological “detectives” are tracking down biothreats such as the bacteria that causes tularemia (“rabbit fever”), but they constantly face the challenge of avoiding false positives. Sounding the alarm over a bioattack, only to find it’s a harmless relative in the same genus, reduces credibility and public trust. Researchers are narrowing down the confusion over Francisella bacteria, a few species of which include highly virulent human and animal pathogens, fish pathogens, opportunistic human pathogens, tick endosymbionts, and free-living isolates inhabiting brackish water.

  • Identifying vulnerabilities posed by synthetic biology

    Given the possible security vulnerabilities related to developments in synthetic biology – a field that uses technologies to modify or create organisms or biological components – a new report by the National Academies of Sciences proposes a framework to identify and prioritize potential areas of concern associated with the field. “While biotechnology is being pursued primarily for beneficial and legitimate purposes, there are potential uses that are detrimental to humans, other species, and ecosystems,” says one of the report’s authors.

  • Making gene editing safer

    Gene editing technologies have captured increasing attention from healthcare professionals, policymakers, and community leaders in recent years for their potential to cure disease, control mosquito populations, and much more. The potential national security applications and implications of these technologies are equally profound, including protection of troops against infectious disease, mitigation of threats posed by irresponsible or nefarious use of biological technologies, and enhanced development of new resources derived from synthetic biology, such as novel chemicals, materials, and coatings with useful, unique properties. DARPA is funding the efforts of seven teams aiming to develop new knowledge and tools to support responsible innovation in gene editing and protect against threats to genome integrity.

  • Bolstering counter-WMD capabilities in the southeast Europe and Black Sea regions

    The Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) DIABLO SHIELD training event and field exercise took place in Tblisi, Georgia, 24-28 April. DIABLO SHIELD emphasizes countering biological threats, and is part of the U.S. European Command’s (USEUCOM) Diablo Pathways series of engagements that support the development of counter-WMD capabilities in the southeast Europe and Black Sea regions.

  • Stacking countermeasures for layered defense against chemical, biological threats

    Just as we must protect computer systems against assaults in the form of viruses and trojans in the cyber world, we must protect our soldiers from a multitude of chemical and biological threats on the battlefield. No one countermeasure can mitigate every threat, which is why the Joint Science and Technology Office at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency is developing a portfolio of novel capabilities and medical countermeasures to protect our troops.

  • Lawmaker criticizes closure of biodefense lab

    President Trump’s FY2018 budget, released last week, zeroes out funding for the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) in Frederick, Maryland and calls for its closure. NBACC, operated by DHS, supports preparedness planning, intelligence assessments and bio-forensic analysis. The lab often assists the FBI in investigating bioterrorism and bio-crime and employs over 180 people.

  • Urban legend: WWI-era “viable” anthrax strain was, in fact, much younger standard laboratory strain

    A team of international researchers has found that a strain of anthrax-causing bacterium thought to have been viable eighty years after a thwarted First World War espionage attack, was, in reality, a much younger standard laboratory strain. The team speculates that the mix-up was due to commonplace laboratory contamination. In 1917, German spy Baron Otto von Rosen was caught in Norway possessing lumps of sugar embedded with glass capillaries filled with a liquid holding spores of Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax. He was suspected of plotting to feed the sugar lumps, which contained the oldest known isolates of B. anthracis, to the reindeer that pulled transports of munitions and foods across the frozen Arctic tundra for the Allied forces.

  • International anthrax conference will explore latest scientific research findings

    Scientists and researchers from all over the world who work on Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax, and B. cereus and B. thuringiensis, two closely related bacillus species, will be heading to Victoria, British Columbia, in October for the international conference known as “Bacillus ACT.” The bi-annual conference, set for 1-5 October, will allow members of the scientific community to present their work and meet more than 200 global peers.

  • Bioterrorists, using genetic editing, could kill more than 30 million people: Bill Gates

    A bioterrorist attack could kill thirty million people — and such an attack is becoming more likely because it has become much easier to create – or “design” — deadly pathogens and spread them. Bill Gates, Microsoft founder, speaking in London, said that an outbreak of a lethal respiratory virus like smallpox would be more dangerous than even a nuclear attack. Anyone can now purchase chemistry kits which allow genetic editing, and do so online for under $150.

  • Terrorists could kill 30 million people within a year using bioweapons: Bill Gates

    Bill Gates, in a speech at the Munich Security Conference, compared the dangers to nuclear war and bioterrorism. “The next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus, or a super contagious and deadly strain of the flu,” he said. “Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than thirty million people in less than a year.”

  • Dual-use sciene, technological innovation

    Scientific research can change our lives for the better, but it also presents risks – either through deliberate misuse or accident. Think about studying deadly pathogens; that’s how we can learn how to successfully ward them off, but it can be a safety issue too, as when CDC workers were exposed to anthrax in 2014 after an incomplete laboratory procedure left spores of the bacterium alive. Making decisions about the security implications of science and technology can be complicated. That’s why scientists and policymakers need clarity on the dual-use distinction to help consider our options.

  • Bioterrorism poses catastrophic threat to U.S. agriculture

    The agriculture sector in the U.S. is a $1 trillion business and employs approximately 9.2 percent of American workers. In 2012, domestic animal agriculture – livestock and poultry production – generated approximately 1.8 million jobs, $346 billion in total economic output and $60 billion in household income. Experts are calling better understanding of the threats to agriculture posed by biological agents which can inflict catastrophic consequences on the U.S. population and economy.

  • Old antibiotics, new tools to combat bio agents

    More than 100 antibiotic compounds have been discovered since Alexander Fleming invented penicillin in 1928, but none within the past thirty years. Now a joint venture is exploring a new class of tetracycline that could combat biological threats to our warfighters.

  • Lawmakers want to know more about Ricin mix-up

    Members of the Committee on Homeland Security sent a letter on 23 December to FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, demanding answers on how many years had first responders unknowingly trained with toxic Ricin at Anniston’s Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP). In a three-page letter, members of the committee demanded answers for  twelve questions, addressing the issue of how lethal toxin was used and the agency’s response once it found out about the mix-up.