Last year, when the United States military debuted footage of an iridescent drone the size and shape of a hummingbird buzzing around a parking lot, the media throated a collective hooah! Time magazine even devoted a cover to it. Meanwhile, with no fanfare at all—despite the enormous potential to reshape modern warfare—the military issued a request for scientists to find ways to design microbes that could produce explosives for weapons. Imagine a vat of genetically engineered yeast that produces chemicals for bombs and missiles instead of beer.
The request takes advantage of new research in synthetic biology, a science that applies engineering principles to genetics. To its humanitarian credit, in the field’s short existence, scientists have genetically programmed bacteria and yeast to cheaply produce green jet fuels (now being tested by major airplane makers) and malaria medicines (scheduled for market in 2013). It's an auspicious beginning for a science that portends to revolutionize how we make things. In the future, we may harness cells to self-assemble into far more complex objects like cell phone batteries or behave like tiny programmable computers. The promise, however, comes yoked with risks.
The techniques that make synthetic biology such a powerful tool for positive innovation may be also used for destruction. The military’s new search for biologically brewed explosives threatens to reopen an avenue of research that has been closed for 37 years: biotechnology developed for use in war.
Last month, the governments that ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention—the international agreement to ban biological weapons—gathered in Geneva to review and update the accord. As expected, they discussed terrorist networks and rogue states bent on weaponizing disease. But they also brought up emerging sciences and how they could be used to create new threats. As BWC review conferences convene only once every five years, this was just the second time they raised synthetic biology as a topic. In recognition of rapid scientific progress, attendees agreed to gather experts annually to monitor new technological developments for the capacity to breach the convention.
Stateside, policymakers are also keeping watch. The White House last year endorsed a policy of "prudent vigilance" in lieu of new regulations that could stifle innovation. And the FBI has launched a campaign to raise awareness among scientists about the potential for "dual use"—science or technology that though ostensibly good for society might be used for harm. Recent, though highly contentious examples include flu research that could make viruses more virulent, or aluminum tubes that could be used for uranium enrichment.
But while some branches of government have displayed a penchant for caution, the United States Department of Defense has been more assertive in its intentions. One DoD research request, for example, asks synthetic biologists to create greener explosives and rocket fuels. In the "statement of need," the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP), which seeks to green the military, argues that microbes could eliminate the heavy-metal and toxic solvents in conventional explosives production.
On the surface, greening weapons of war sounds like a project that we might dismiss as benign, even beneficial, if a little incongruous. But this application treads a step closer to the line drawn by the BWC in 1975 and reaffirmed by the U.S. government many times since. Article 1 of the BWC states that signatories must never produce or possess microbial or other biological agents "that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes." Because explosives-producing microbes in themselves would not be weapons, they would not appear to violate the convention. That said, as part of the production chain and a means for making weapons components, they wouldn't qualify as having “peaceful purposes,” either.
The SERDP request is part of a drive across the military to find defense applications for synthetic biology. Last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, pledged $30 million for what it deems high-value materials and devices made using Living Foundries, and the Office of Naval Research proposed using synthetic biology to produce TNT intermediaries, presumably for weapons.
If successfully built, explosives-producing microbes will come with sticky problems beyond international law. The military has a checkered history of containing its technologies, and the touted environmental benefits won’t keep the new technologies from falling into undesirable hands. Losing track of rifles, Patriot missiles, or drones is bad enough; losing track of self-reproducing factories for explosives is another matter entirely. The quality that makes microbes so powerful will also make them difficult to contain: A single microscopic cell, acquired by a criminal or enemy, could in principle multiply to fill a vat within a few days.
Despite programs that will strike some as ethically equivocal, we should encourage military funding for synthetic biology. Perhaps most importantly, the technology can strengthen our national security by providing alternatives to foreign oil. But we must also be wary. Not all military projects are worth their price—morally, financially, or otherwise. The BWC already delineates how biology may be used in military applications. The U.S. government should carefully consider research funding that may confuse the issue, since other countries, and potential adversaries, might take a cue and aggressively employ biology in decidedly unsavory ways. Proceeding without adequate reflection risks undermining four decades of international moral consensus about appropriate uses of biology. It also threatens our national security.
In writing this, we asked ourselves where on the spectrum do appropriate uses of biotech become inappropriate. It’s a shifting line that may fall into the unsatisfying category of “you know it when you see it.” If as a society we educate ourselves on the potential of the technology and actively monitor its development, we may not know exactly where the line sits, but with vigilance and dialogue we’ll be able to recognize research that crosses it.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.