A new generation of biological weapons could emerge as scientists become increasingly more knowledgeable in the field of synthetic biology, including genetic engineering.
According to a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense, the recent advances in genetic engineering now make it more possible for scientists to easily recreate known viruses or bacteria from scratch and even make them more harmful to humans.
What's more, the report also named and classified the kinds of biological weapons that could be created from synthetic biology technologies, including gene-editing technology such as CRISPR.
The field of synthetic biology aims to make biology easier to engineer. Its subject combines disciplines from within the domains of biotechnology, genetic engineering, chemistry, biology, among others.
Genetic engineering involves manipulating a living organism's genes through biotechnology. In medicine, for example, genetic engineering has been used to mass-produce insulin, human growth hormones, vaccines, and many other drugs. In plants, on the other hand, it can be used to produce plants that can tolerate exposure to herbicides or have a higher nutritional value.
The new report, which was published by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, & Medicine on June 19, has identified a number of ways that could be used to create biological weapons from today's technologies, including CRISPR.
Recreation Of Possible Biological Weapons
Among these techniques, the report considered three major threats of highest concern, including recreating a deadly virus, such as Ebola or smallpox, making viruses or bacteria more harmful to human, and making microbes to produce and release toxins.
Making viruses or bacteria more harmful to humans could be done by either making them antibiotic resistant or by altering them so that they could produce toxins.
"Right now, recreating pretty much any virus can be done relatively easily. It requires a certain amount of expertise and resources and knowledge," said Michael Imperiale, a microbiologist at the University of Michigan and chair of the committee that authored the report.
"Capabilities to do either of those have been around for a long time. They are only becoming more readily available."
The report included a recent controversial study, which was published in the journal PLOS One earlier this year. In this study, researchers from the University of Alberta in Canada have detailed the creation of a horsepox virus, a cousin of smallpox and was thought to be extinct. The researchers created the virus in order to develop a new smallpox vaccine.