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Synthetic Biology and ‘Amateur Science’: Dual-use and Challenges of Regulation

Strategic Security Analysis - 2016 n°2

Release Date:

February 2016

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Key Points

  • There have been significant and successive turning points in life sciences with implications for security policy in recent decades, most recently marked by the advent of synthetic biology. Synthetic Biology allows for the creation of biological components with novel functions, which do not otherwise exist in nature. Synthetic genomics now allow scientists to create entire genes and microbial genomes from scratch.
  • Synthetic biology is an example of a dual-use technology: it promises numerous beneficial applications but it can also be used for harm. This has led to fears that terrorists could exploit synthetic biology to create deadly viral agents.
  • Those apprehensive of dual-use have cited enabling factors such as an overall de-skilling and ‘democratisation’ occurring in biology, as well as decreasing prices of DNA synthesis and its easy availability for purchase over the Internet. The advent of ‘amateur biology’, and its community of biology enthusiasts, has led to fears that virtually anybody could potentially learn to use the tools of synthetic biology, with destructive implications.
  • Concerns about the misuse of synthetic biology by amateur scientists were overstated as there are numerous technical hurdles to bioterrorism. One critical hurdle that is often overlooked in this debate is the role played by ‘tacit knowledge’ in the laboratory.
  • Despite the alarmist exaggerations, the need for regulation over this community remains important. Unfortunately, while there have been some steps towards self-regulation in the community of amateur biologists, for the most part, the issue of governance has been insufficiently addressed.