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.