New Buzz around Biological Hazards

Posted by Emily Beitiks November 1, 2011
Biopolitical Times

A featured essay in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine by Wil S. Hylton explores the ongoing risks of bioterrorism. Ten years after anthrax, it asserts, we have made little progress in preparedness against biological attacks.

Hylton’s article raises important concerns. It should also motivate us to consider our ability to address a different kind of biological hazard – the ones that are our own doing. Two additional articles in the New York Times point to biological risks that do not require a terrorist attack to threaten the human future.

The first is that of synthetic biology. Another article in the New York Times last week explored an internal dispute at the Berkeley-based SynBERC laboratory involving the resignation of prominent anthropologist Paul Rabinow, who was hired by the NSF to explore the ethics and safety risks of synthetic biology. Coverage of the controversy focused on the gossip over Rabinow’s departure, but little attention has been given to how the SynBERC lab plans to – or plans not to - address the troubling safety issues Rabinow observed. The NYT article quoted him describing the SynBERC scientists as “profoundly irresponsible,” without consideration of their “responsibility to larger society, which is funding them, by entrusting them to manipulate life.” Because synthetic biology aims to introduce new forms of biological life, even if current safety precautions are met, we cannot know for certain whether it will be adequate to contain a synthetic organism if it poses a threat.

Another article that appeared in the New York Times this week considers the risks of genetically modified mosquitoes, pointing out that once they are released into the wild, they cannot be called back. Like synthetic biology, there is only so much we can anticipate when we are working with novel forms of life, and the effects on our ecosystems and human health could be drastic. After all, genetically modified plants and organisms, similar to non-indigenous plants introduced to a new environment, have wronged us in the past (1, 2).

The point of making these links is to consider our preparedness against biological threats as a whole, regardless of the threat’s origin. Though biological weapons made by terrorists aim to do harm, while synthetic biology and GMO mosquitoes are developed with the best of intentions, the environmental and social harms that could result without the appropriate care and oversight could be distressingly similar. 

Previously on Biopolitical Times: