Accessible Synthetic Biology Raises New Concerns for DIY Biological Warfare


For a few hundred dollars you can experiment with genome editing at your kitchen table. Image: MOTHERBOARD
This December, the signatory nations of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) will meet, as they do every five years, to discuss the state of bioweapons globally. In at least one way, the world has radically changed since they last met, in 2011. The discovery of several novel gene-editing techniques, most famous being CRISPR-Cas9, might be the scientific breakthrough of this century. It has unleashed a torrent of studies that aim to cure everything from cancer to world hunger.

By Joseph Neighbor | MOTHERBORAD

But this new era of synthetic biology has a dark side. Scientific discoveries generally outpace our ability to legislate sensible limits, or even understand exactly what we’re playing with; that’s the point of experimental research, after all: to chart the unknown. The discovery last year that scientists in China have begun using gene-editing techniques on human embryos—a troubling, unprecedented step towards a sci-fi dystopia —has ignited a vigorous global debate about the limits we ought to have when manipulating biology.

The advent of CRISPR has corresponded with a widespread democratization of biology. Gene-editing kits are cheap, legal, and relatively easy to use. DIY biohacking spaces have proliferated throughout the world, teaching amateurs how to perform elementary gene-editing themselves. This approach, too, holds much promise; after all, some of this nation’s most celebrated scientific achievements were discovered by tinkering amateurs in the garage.

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