March theme: Biodefense & food supply safetyWorrying about wrong threat weakens U.S. bioterrorism preparedness

Published 3 March 2008

Science writer says that the worry about man-made pathogens (or “designer” pathogens) is misplaced; preoccupation with artificial germs has led the government to de-emphasize “one-bug-one-drug” strategy in favor of “broad spectrum technology” aiming to boost the body’s innate, or general, immunity; experts question wisdom of strategy

How real is the threat posed by synthetic bugs? Are U.S. officials making to much of it? Mother Nature is the most dangerous terrorist,” says Michael Kurilla, the nation’s unofficial biodefense czar. “The microbial world is almost unlimited in its [terrorist] potential.” Wendy Orent writes in the Los Angeles Times, though, that despite the emergence of such new diseases as SARS and the H5N1 avian flu, it is not Mother Nature only that worries Kurilla, the director of the Office of Biodefense Research Affairs of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He is also concerned about the threat from synthetic biology — the possibility that rogue scientists and bioterrorists could make diseases in the laboratory to be used for terrorism. As he puts it, “The threat and the reality of synthetic biology is becoming greater and greater every day.” A recent report in Science magazine appears to offer support to those who worry that synthetic biology could become a source of terrorist weapons. A group of scientists, among them J. Craig Venter, whose team decoded the human genome in 2000, has succeeded in synthesizing a bacterial genome entirely from scratch (see November 2007 HSDW story).

Orent writes that Venter’s feat does not mean that terrorists will be making new germs to kill us, and it should not mean that the government should spend billions of dollars trying to counter a chimerical threat by developing an equally chimerical antidote. “Synthesizing a bacterium from an existing genome changes nothing fundamental in our understanding of synthetic biology,” she writes. Virologist Eckhard Wimmer synthesized poliovirus in 2002, and Venter’s team made a bacteria-eating virus in 2003. Venter’s latest experiment, however, was the first to synthesize so large a piece of DNA. He has not made his germ “boot up” yet — it still has to be put into a living cell and show that it can grow and multiply. Even so, scientists skeptical about the significance of his achievement think Venter will get his synthetic germ up and running in a matter of months. Now, Venter’s work makes the creation of lethal new life forms seem more believable. Indeed, the fear of dangerous synthetic germs has prompted the enormous, cumbersome apparatus which is the U.S. biodefense program to lurch in a new direction. “If we don’t know what pathogens are coming, the reasoning goes, we had better develop